A still image taken from a video uploaded by the Syrian Army on May 13, 2017 shows smoke rising from Qaboun, on the edge of the capital Damascus, Syria. SYRIAN ARMY HANDOUT via Reuters TV(reuters_tickers)
By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN (Reuters) - More than 2,000 rebels and their family members have left the devastated district of Qaboun on the edge of the Syrian capital Damascus after more than two months of aerial strikes and artillery shelling, state media said on Sunday.
The rebels had agreed overnight to a secret evacuation deal after being cornered in a small pocket of Qaboun, which lies on the northeastern edge of Damascus. The area has been largely reduced to rubble after being struck by hundreds of aerial strikes and missiles over a period of about 80 days.
The Syrian army had resumed its intensive bombardment of the district on Wednesday after a one-day ultimatum it gave the rebels mainly drawn from the area to surrender and agree to evacuate to rebel-held areas in northern Syria.
"The regime has threatened to destroy what is left of Qaboun and will not accept anything but a military solution," Abdullah al Qabouni from the local council of the district told Reuters.
Hundreds of rebels and their families were evacuated this week from the adjacent Barzeh district after rebels there decided to lay down their arms and leave to rebel-held Idlib province..
Syrian state media said 2,289 people had left the district to rebel-held Idlib province on Sunday, half of whom were fighters. Rebels put the total figure at more than 1,500 people.
At least three people were killed when a shooting took place at a bus among a convoy of more than 30 buses ferrying the evacuees northwards out of Damascus, a rebel source said.
Most of the residents of the once-bustling area, which had sheltered thousands of displaced people from other parts of Syria in the course of the conflict, fled in the last two months as the bombing escalated.
REBELS UNDER PRESSURE
The loss of Qaboun following Barzeh is another blow to rebels as they battle to keep a foothold in the capital and face government troops who are supported by Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has promoted the use of evacuation deals, along with what his government calls "reconciliation" accords, for rebel-held areas that surrender to the government as a way of reducing bloodshed.
But the United Nations has criticised both the use of siege tactics which precede such deals and the evacuations themselves as amounting to forcible displacement.
The Sunni Muslim rebels accuse the government of seeking to evict Sunni inhabitants in these areas in demographic changes they say would eventually pave the way for Iranian-backed Shi'ites who back Assad's rule to take over their homes, a claim the authorities deny.
Army advances were made possible after tunnels between Qaboun and Barzeh were cut and the army isolated the areas from the rest of the main rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta.
The tightening of the siege in Qaboun and Barzeh, where tens of thousands of people lived, forced the hands of rebels to eventually agree to deals worked out elsewhere that force them to pull back to northern Syria.
"They besieged us and even medicines for children or any supplies were no longer left ... and people died of hunger," said Ahmad Khatib, who was among those who left on Friday.
Rebels say bloody internecine infighting this month has also weakened their resolve. Fighters in Qaboun and Barzeh said they were not sent reinforcements from powerful rebel groups in the Eastern Ghouta district.
The densely populated rural Eastern Ghouta district of farms and towns has been besieged since 2013. It remains the only major rebel bastion near Damascus and the fall of Qaboun and Barzeh have removed a main line of defence that protected it, rebels say.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Dan Grebler and Gareth Jones)