Residents and rebels start evacuating Darayya

Aid convoys arranged by the medical charity Red Crescent have entered the besieged Syrian town of Darayya as hundreds of rebel fighters prepared to lay down their arms after ceding control of the area to government forces. A convoy of Red Crescent ambulances reached Darayya early on Friday, a town located just a few kilometres from President Bashar al-Assad’s Damascus palace and the government-held Mazzeh airbase.

On Thursday, Syrian state news agency SANA announced a deal had been struck for the evacuation of civilians and fighters in the town. According to sources around 8,000 civilians and 800 rebels would be evacuated from the Damascus suburb, which before the war was home to a quarter of a million people, to Sahnaya – a town in Damascus governorate – under regime control.

The rebels, meanwhile, will then be taken to northern Idlib,  held by Jaish al-Fatah, a coalition of armed anti-government groups, our correspondent said

The rebels who controlled Darayya belonged to two rebel groups: Ajnad al-Sham and Liwa’ Shuhada al-Islam, groups allied with Jaish al-Fatah. However, activists told Al Jazeera that they were extremely concerned over the safety of civilians, many of whom are relatives of the rebels, as the government offered little to no guarantees. Some opposition groups also criticised the deal, calling it a major setback as Sunnis would be forced from their homes, further fracturing the country along sectarian lines.

Situation map of Darayya & southwest Damascus [26/8/2016, map via IHS Conflict Monitor]
Situation map of Darayya & southwest Damascus [26/8/2016, map via IHS Conflict Monitor]

“Forced to leave”

Darayya has a strategic position – given its proximity to Daraa Road, it is not far from the capital and from the Mazzeh military airport, too. The armed opposition had used the town as a connection hub between western and eastern Ghouta, Damascus. The suburb saw some of the first protests against the Syrian government, an uprising that transformed into a full-blown civil conflict.

The withdrawal of the rebels only a few miles from Damascus is a boost for President Bashar al-Assad, analysts say. “We are being forced to leave, but our condition has deteriorated to the point of being unbearable,” Hussam Ayash, an activist in the town, told the Associated Press news agency. “We withstood for four years but we couldn’t any longer.”

Sources: Al Jazeera News/SANA/BBC News/AP/Reuters/Syria & Iraq News

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