DOUMA - A new group of Syrian rebels and civilians prepared to leave Eastern Ghouta on Monday after the largest exodus yet from the opposition enclave, as talks stalled over the final pocket of resistance. Five weeks since government troops launched a ferocious offensive on Ghouta, they hold more than 90 percent of the long-besieged opposition stronghold on the doorstep of Damascus.

The area has been ravaged by heavy bombardment and emptied by an exodus of tens of thousands of residents and negotiated withdrawals of rebels.

A convoy of more than 5,400 fighters and civilians left a pocket of territory held by Islamist rebel group Faylaq al-Rahman late Sunday and reached northwest Syria the following day.

It was the single largest one-day evacuation yet from Eastern Ghouta, after nearly 1,000 people were bussed out from the same area on Saturday.

Syria's ally Russia has been deeply involved in the process, negotiating with rebels and placing masked military escorts aboard buses leaving Ghouta.

More pull-outs were expected Monday from the towns of Arbin and Zamalka and the neighbouring district of Jobar, all held by Faylaq al-Rahman.

The group's spokesman Wael Alwan on Monday confirmed that "the evacuations are continuing today", but could not provide detailed numbers.

More buses were ready Monday to take around 1,100 people, including fighters and several hundred children, out of the same area, according to state media.

The departures are part of a deal reached with the rebel group last week.

Syrian FM visits Oman on rare Gulf mission

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem landed in the Omani capital on Monday for talks with officials, the two countries’ news agencies said.

Oman, a US ally bordering Saudi Arabia and Yemen, has good ties with Iran, a key backer of the Syrian regime, and has frequently served as a mediator in the Arab world.

Its state news agency ONA said Muallem’s visit would cover “several days during which he will meet with a number of senior officials in the sultanate”, without giving details.

The visit will cover “the current situation in the region and means of strengthening bilateral ties”, said Syria’s SANA news agency.

It is Muallem’s second trip to Oman since the 2011 outbreak of Syria’s conflict, during which it has been the only Gulf state to host a Syrian foreign minister.

 

 

The government has repeatedly used such "reconciliation deals" to recapture territory lost during Syria's seven-year war. Eastern Ghouta lies within mortar range of Damascus, and rebels there had threatened to seize the capital from President Bashar al-Assad.

The regime responded by imposing a crippling half-decade siege on the suburb's 400,000 residents, sealing off access to food, medicine and other goods.

On February 18, the regime, its ally Russia and loyalist militia launched an all-out assault, using air strikes and a sweeping ground assault to corner rebels in three isolated pockets.

More than 1,600 civilians have been killed in the operation, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor.

To help the regime capture the rest, Moscow began talks with the rebels in each area.

The first agreement, with hardline Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, saw more than 4,500 people including rebels leave the town of Harasta last week.

The deal with Faylaq al-Rahman on Friday has so far seen 6,400 people leave the pocket it controls, putting Assad within reach of securing the second-last part of the former rebel stronghold.

The convoy of 81 buses that left late Sunday began arriving at a staging ground on the edge of opposition territory in northwest Syria on Monday afternoon.

Dozens of people had been waiting since early morning for the arrival of relatives and friends who were bussed out of Ghouta.

"I'm waiting for my wife's parents who were besieged. We've missed them so much," said Abu al-Laith, who himself was evacuated 10 months ago from another Damascus district.

A third set of talks is ongoing over the final pocket, controlled by Jaish al-Islam and including the largest town in the area, Douma.

But unlike the others, that deal could see Jaish al-Islam remain in Douma.

"The ongoing negotiations with Russia are to stay in Douma, not to leave it," said Jaish al-Islam spokesman Hamza Bayraqdar, without providing further details.

Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said the deal could see Jaish al-Islam lay down heavy weapons in exchange for the return of government-provided water and electricity to the town.

Russian military police, but not Syria's army, would deploy there.

But internal divisions within opposition ranks were holding up the talks, Abdel Rahman told AFP.

"Jaish al-Islam's commanders are divided and some are opposed to a deal," he said.

Similar terms were reported by Syria's pro-government Al-Watan daily.

It said a "preliminary understanding" had been reached over Ghouta that would see the "dissolution of Jaish al-Islam, the handover of its heavy weapons and the return of state institutions to the city."

Al-Watan said the parties had three days to study the deal.

In Douma, residents were torn over what to do.

"I've spent my whole life here and lived the revolution. My father died here. How could I abandon his grave?" said Abu Ayman, 30.

"But I could never live alongside regime forces," he added.

Some had already left into government-held zones, using a corridor opened up by regime troops.

About 16,000 people have fled Douma using the route in recent days, the Observatory said. Some 200,000 people, including many who fled other parts of Ghouta, are estimated to remain in the town.

"I'm leaving because I'm sick, weak, because there are shortages and hunger," said Fayiz Alie Thaljah, 53, as he left.

"We used to eat every three days. We couldn't cook - Douma was empty."