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Syrian Rebels Exit Second Pocket of Eastern Ghouta


This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows Syrian government forces overseeing the evacuation by buses of rebel fighters and their families in Arbeen, in the eastern Ghouta region near Damascus, March 24, 2018.

Hundreds of Syrian rebels and civilians were bussed out of a second pocket of the besieged eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus on Sunday after rebels agreed to leave several towns and villages after years of siege and weeks of heavy bombardment.

Close to 900 people were evacuated from the southernmost of three eastern Ghouta pockets on Sunday, according to state-affiliated al-Ikhbariya TV, following some 1,000 fighters, family members, and other civilians who departed late Saturday, as reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

They left in a fleet of buses, including the lime-green municipal buses, that have come to symbolize defeat for the Syrian opposition, and the steady rearrangement of Syria's population as the government takes back control of cities around the country.

Fighters dressed in fatigues slumped in their seats, hiding their faces from the news cameras on the road, and children peered out the windows.

The evacuation is modeled on others in which rebels have surrendered swathes of territory around the capital and other major cities after years of siege and bombardment at the hands of President Bashar Assad's forces. They have been helpless against the government's overwhelming artillery and air power, boosted with support from Iran's Revolutionary Guard and Russia's air force.

Rebels began evacuating another pocket of eastern Ghouta on Thursday. Some 7,000 people left the town of Harasta, bound for the rebel-held Idlib province in northern Syria.

The Syrian government is giving rebels and male residents the choice to put down their weapons and sign up for military conscription or to leave with their families to rebel-held territories elsewhere in Syria. Tens of thousands across Syria have elected to leave with their families instead of serving in the army or risking arrest by the state's notoriously vindictive security services.

Critics say it amounts to forced displacement, and rewards brutal siege tactics that have deprived hundreds of thousands of civilians of food and medicine and subjected them to years of violence. U.N. inquiries and top U.N. officials have likened the tactics to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The U.N. and the International Committee of the Red Cross have refused to facilitate the eastern Ghouta evacuations.

Close to 11 million people have been forced from their homes by the violence that has swept through the country since the government began cracking down on Arab Spring protests in 2011.

The government has restored its authority in most of the major population centers that make up the spine of the country, but there are few indications that refugees and the internally displaced are returning to their homes in large numbers.

Many of the cities and towns once held by the opposition have been razed by government forces, and resources and funding to rebuild are scarce.

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