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Syrian Government, Rebels Reach Evacuation Agreement for S. Damascus


FILE - In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, smoke rises after Syrian government airstrikes and shelling hit in Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood held by Islamic State militants, southern Damascus, April 22, 2018.

An agreement brokered by Russia to evacuate neighborhoods in southern Damascus was reached Monday between the Syrian government and rebel groups controlling the enclave of southern Damascus.

The parties agreed to evacuate trapped civilians and fighters in southern Damascus in exchange for sending away civilians and fighters in the two towns of Fua'a and Kafriyeh, predominately-Shiite towns under the regime's control in rebel-held Idlib province.

Local sources said the agreement excluded IS militants in Yarmouk Camp.

Mattar Ismael, a journalist based in southern Damascus, told VOA that people started preparations to leave southern Damascus, and the first convoy of civilians is expected to be bused out Tuesday morning.

"The majority of civilians will go to Idlib and Jarablus in northern Syria, a small group chose to go to Deraa in the south, and there are a number of civilians who refused to leave," Ismael said.

He added that thousands of civilians live in areas under the control of Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the towns of Yalda, Babila and Beit Sahm, and about 400 civilians are still in Yarmouk Camp under IS.

The FSA started handing over a number of its locations to the Russian Military Police, according to Syrian opposition news sources.

An estimated 3,500 civilians fled Yarmouk Camp in one week, many of whom are sleeping in the streets of neighboring areas.

"Those stark figures tell their own tragic story, of the destruction of a once-thriving refugee community, now reduced to abject, untold suffering," Chris Gunness, spokesperson for United Nations Agency to help Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), told Al Jazeera.

FILE - Residents of the besieged Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp wait to leave the camp, on the southern edge of the Syrian capital Damascus, Syria, in this Feb. 4, 2014, photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA.
FILE - Residents of the besieged Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp wait to leave the camp, on the southern edge of the Syrian capital Damascus, Syria, in this Feb. 4, 2014, photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA.

Yarmouk Camp was established for the Palestinian refugees who fled the 1948 war with Israel. According to UNRWA, the camp was home to about 160,000 Palestinians before Syria's conflict began in 2011.

Monday's agreement will also evacuate 1,500 civilians and militants in the towns of Fua'a and Kafriyeh in Idlib province, and release 80 civilians kidnapped in 2015 by former the al-Qaida-affiliated group, Tahrir.

The towns of Fua'a and Kafriyeh have been under siege since 2015, when rebel groups launched the Operation to Free Idlib Province against the Syrian government.

Despite the agreement, airstrikes and clashes did not stop in southern Damascus, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

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