CAIRO - Syrian government buses on Friday began evacuating the first of 4,000 civilians and rebel fighters from the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Daraya. Fighters reportedly will be allowed to leave for rebel-held Idlib province, near the Turkish border, based on a deal reached with government representatives Thursday.
Syrian state TV showed live footage of the first green government bus leaving the besieged suburb. Several bearded rebel fighters could be seen in the bus, alongside their families.
A Syrian army colonel overseeing the operation told journalists that it was proceeding smoothly and that he hoped it would be a precursor to similar actions.
He said the first batch of 300 rebel fighters, whom he called "terrorists", were being evacuated to the rebel-held province of Idlib. He added that some civilians who wish to remain in the Damascus area would be allowed to do so.
Syrian media reported that approximately 4,000 remaining residents of Daraya – under government siege since 2012 – would leave the area under a deal. A quarter-million people lived in the suburb before the Syrian conflict broke out in 2011.
Amateur video taken by opposition activists inside Daraya showed women dressed in black veils surrounded by children preparing to leave. Young men in military fatigues also milled around the heavily damaged buildings surrounded by piles of rubble.
Convoys of four-wheel-drive vehicles and ambulances belonging to the Syrian Red Crescent organization also took part in the operation to evacuate the wounded and a number of dead government troops.
Syrian state media reported that some of the fighters being evacuated had agreed to surrender to the government and accept an official amnesty. VOA could not independently confirm the claim.
Four-day operation planned
Pro-Syrian government al-Mayadeen TV reported that 45 government buses would participate in what it called a four-day operation to evacuate all remaining individuals from Daraya. It reported that other Damascus suburbs may soon participate in similar evacuation operations.
Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV, which supports the rebels, reported that more than 3,000 people have been killed in Daraya since it came under government siege in 2012.