Tearful Syrians leave rebel enclave in largest evacuation yet

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More than 5,000 Syrian rebels and civilians left a ravaged pocket of Eastern Ghouta on Sunday, in fresh evacuations that further emptied the former rebel bastion.

Five weeks since the Syrian regime launched an all-out assault on Ghouta, it holds more than 90 percent of the onetime opposition stronghold on the edge of Damascus.

To help it capture the rest, key backer Russia has held talks with various rebel groups to negotiate withdrawals from the three remaining pockets.

One area was emptied in recent days under such a deal, and thousands left a second part held by the Islamist Faylaq al-Rahman rebel faction on Sunday.

More than 5,400 fighters, their relatives, and other civilians left the towns of Arbin and Zamalka and the district of Jobar aboard 81 buses on Sunday, according to state television.

Many of the buses left rebel territory early in the day but were delayed at a nearby checkpoint for several hours as they waited for the full convoy to gather.

They were searched by Syrian troops, who checked fighters were leaving with light weapons only, before Russian military personnel boarded each bus.

In the early hours of Monday morning, the buses resumed their journey north to the province of Idlib in the largest single day of evacuations yet for Ghouta.

They are expected to pave the way for an announcement by Damascus that the zone once held by Faylaq al-Rahman had come under government control.

The deal with Faylaq al-Rahman, brokered by Russia and announced on Friday, provides for the evacuation of 7,000 rebels and civilians from the pocket of Ghouta it controlled.

Around 980 left Ghouta in a first batch on Saturday night and traveled all night to reach northwest Syria early Sunday.

Talks are also underway for a deal over the third and final pocket of Ghouta, which includes the region’s largest town, Douma.

Residents of Arbin, Zamalka, and Jobar had been bidding tearful farewells to their hometowns all morning, dragging shabby suitcases past bombed-out buildings.

“I’m a civilian and never carried weapons — I was forced to leave my hometown because of the intense bombing,” said Abu Yazan, an evacuee in his twenties.

Hamza Abbas, an opposition activist in Zamalka, told AFP they did not have much to look forward to in Idlib.