Hundreds of Syrian rebels evacuate besieged Eastern Ghouta

March 22 (UPI) — After weeks of conflict that included more than 1,200 deaths, hundreds of rebel fighters and their families on Thursday began leaving Eastern Ghouta in Syria.

The enclave on the outskirts of the capital Damascus was one of Syria’s last significant rebel-held areas. It is now controlled by the Syrian regime, led by President Bashar al-Assad, who had help in the battle from Russian air raids.

The Ahrar Al-Sham fighters agreed to leave the Eastern Ghouta town of Harasta under an evacuation deal that allows fighters to take their weapons and ensures their safety as they leave with their families. As many as 1,500 fighters and 6,000 of their family members are expected to evacuate.

The fighters’ surrender leaves only Douma and a few other pockets of rebel-held areas in Eastern Ghouta, including Jobar, Ein Terma, Arbin and Zamalka.

Buses transported families out of the enclave and on to the Idlib province in the northwest of the country close to the Turkish border.

Assad visited Eastern Ghouta in a rare public appearance on Saturday, after the Syrian military announced that 80 percent of the area was retaken from armed anti-government groups that have held the territory since 2013.

The siege of Eastern Ghouta by Syrian troops with Russian air support has killed at least 1,250 people. The United Nations said that at least 20,000 people have fled Eastern Ghouta since the bombings began several weeks ago.

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