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Syria Denies Deal With IS to Evacuate Fighters


FILE - In this file photo released April 30, 2018 by the Syrian official news agency, SANA, Syrian government forces oversee a bus carrying al-Qaida-linked fighters during an evacuation from the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, near Damascus, Syria.

The Syrian government denied on Monday it had entered an agreement with Islamic State to evacuate the last of the militant group's fighters from one last area of resistance in southern Damascus.

Syrian state media denied it had reached a deal with IS militants, and declared that its control of Al-Hajr al-Aswad and Yarmouk Camp suburbs was a "military victory." The area south of Damascus was the scene of intense airstrikes by the Syrian government to capture the area.

The General Command for the Syrian Army made a televised statement Monday, declaring the full seizure of Yarmouk Camp and Al-Hajr al-Aswad neighborhoods, which puts the area surrounding Damascus and its countryside under Syrian government control.

"Our armed forces and allied troops accomplished a full seizure of Hajr Aswad and surrounding areas after we got rid of a large number of IS militants and fully secured Al-Hajr al-Aswad and Yarmouk Camp areas," said Ali Maihoob, the spokesperson for the Syrian General Command of the Army and Armed forces.

A boy stands on the rubble of damage buildings in Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus, Syria, May 21, 2018.
A boy stands on the rubble of damage buildings in Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus, Syria, May 21, 2018.

Maihoob added that the military operations will continue until they capture all areas of resistance and secure the country. Yarmouk Camp fell under IS control in March 2015.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based war monitor group, said there was a Russian-brokered deal between the Syrian government and IS militants to leave the area.

Mattar Ismael, a journalist from southern Damascus, told VOA that the execution of the deal started at midnight Sunday, adding that locals reported seeing a convoy of buses entering the area during the night. Footage circulated on social media showed buses leaving the two suburbs carrying fighters and their families.

"Buses carrying families of IS and civilians already arrived to Homs province [in] central Syria, while about 1,000 IS fighters will leave to the Syrian Desert, probably to eastern Deir el-Zour," Ismael said.

Previous deals between the Syrian government and different rebel groups were reached, resulting in the evacuation of civilians and rebels from southern Damascus in April 2018. Deals between the government and IS fighters and their families, however, failed.

IS fighters decided to remain in the area after the Syrian and Russian officials refused to guarantee that IS convoys heading to east Syria would not be targeted by the coalition's airstrikes.

Yarmouk Camp was home to the largest Palestinian diaspora in Syria. It was established for the Palestinians who fled the 1948 war with Israel. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the camp was home to about 160,000 Palestinians before Syria's conflict began in 2011.

The Syrian government retaking the area surrounding Damascus and its countryside comes six years after losing its grip over large sections in the region and seven years since the armed clashes began in the area.

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