Aid groups evacuate last of critically ill from Syrian rebel area

BEIRUT, Weedah Hamzah (dpa)– The Red Cross and Syrian Red Crescent have evacuated the third and last group of critically sick people from a besieged rebel stronghold near the Syrian capital Damascus under a deal with the government.
The last group of 12 patients were evacuated from the region of Eastern Ghouta shortly after midnight, Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Friday.

"The 12 were transferred to hospitals inside Damascus, after 17 others have been evacuated from Eastern Ghouta since Wednesday," Abdel-Rahman of the London-based war watchdog told dpa.
Under a deal with Damascus, rebels from Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam), who control the region, released 26 prisoners and handed them over to the government in exchange for the evacuation of the critically ill people from Eastern Ghouta.
A total of 400,000 people in the region have been largely cut off from humanitarian aid since 2013.
Earlier this month, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) said children in Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus were suffering one of the worst health crises of Syria's civil war.
Eastern Ghouta has been under siege by government forces for the past four years.
In recent months, government forces, supported by Russian air power, have gained ground from moderate rebels and militants.
Government forces have recently stepped up attacks aimed at retaking the north-western province of Idlib, a major rebel stronghold.
Battles between government forces and opposition groups there have left at least 19 civilians since Thursday, Abdel-Rahman said.
"The fighting still raging in the countryside of Idlib has also left 20 rebel fighters and 27 regime forces dead," he added.
Government and Russian warplanes have conducted since Monday some 239 airstrikes on the rural section of Idlib and neighbouring Hama, according to Abdel-Rahman.
"These raids have killed since Monday 41 civilians, including 11 children."
The intense attacks, mainly on the rebel-controlled Idlib countryside, show that the there will be a major offensive by the government in the area "very soon," Abdel Rahman said.
Idlib is the only Syrian province still run by rebel forces. It is dominated by hardline jihadists, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an al-Qaeda-linked alliance.
On Wednesday, Russia said it had shifted its focus in Syria to rooting out an al-Qaeda group, following the defeat of Islamic State extremists in the war-torn country.
"The main anti-terrorist objective is the defeat of Jabhat al-Nusra," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in comments carried by the TASS state news agency,using the previous name of the group now called Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.
The group has been a major force against Russia's ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in Syria's multi-sided civil war, which is now in its seventh year.

Saturday, December 30th 2017
Weedah Hamzah

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