Eastern Ghouta's last rebel group starts leaving for northern Syria

AMMAN/BEIRUT, Nehal El-Sherif and Weedah Hamzah (dpa) - Members of the last powerful Syrian rebel faction to control areas near Damascus started leaving the territory of Eastern Ghouta on Monday, state media reported, a day after a deal was reached between the rebels and Russia.
Twelve buses carrying hundreds of Jaish al-Islam rebels and their families left Eastern Ghouta's Douma area towards the northern town of Jarabulus, in Aleppo province, the official SANA news agency reported.

Once finalized, the evacuation will seal the Syrian government's full control of Eastern Ghouta, a former opposition bastion on the outskirts of the capital.
The loss of Eastern Ghouta will deal the biggest blow to the Syrian opposition since December 2016, when President Bashar al-Assad's forces regained complete control of the northern city of Aleppo from the rebels following a Russian-backed offensive.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that most buses have not yet left Douma.
An activist, who is still in Douma and prefers to go by the name of Mohammed for security reasons, said there are divisions among Jaish al-Islam, causing the delay of the departure of more fighters to areas in northern Syria.
"The hardline faction inside Jaish al-Islam is still refusing to abandon their posts and leave to Jarabulus or al-Bab," the activist told dpa by phone.
Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Observatory, said there are "serious mediations" to convince the hardline faction of Jaish al-Islam not to obstruct the deal.
In video footage published by Jaish al-Islam online on Sunday, the group's leader told a group of men in a mosque they would stay no matter what.
"We are going to stay on this land... The ones who want to leave, I tell them leave! Don't distract us," Essam al-Buidani said in the video message.
dpa could not verify when the video was filmed.
Meanwhile, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah Shiite movement, a close ally of al-Assad, said some of the rebel fighters will go to Turkish-held areas in northern Syria. A Turkish government official denied any of the fighters were heading to areas under Ankara's direct control.
Monday's evacuation comes after thousands of people, including rebel fighters, left Eastern Ghouta for the rebel stronghold of Idlib, a province in north-western Syria, under Russian-brokered deals in recent weeks.
Some opposition groups have condemned the evacuation deals as forced displacement.
Al-Assad's forces started a massive campaign on February 18 aimed at expelling rebels from Eastern Ghouta, which has been under a government siege since 2013.
Prior to the onslaught, some 400,000 people had lived in Eastern Ghouta.
After pounding the region with airstrikes, government forces have taken back most of the enclave through a combination of ground assaults and Russia-brokered evacuation deals.

Tuesday, April 3rd 2018
Nehal El-Sherif and Weedah Hamzah (dpa)

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