BEIRUT - The Syrian army declared victory Saturday in eastern Ghouta after opposition fighters evacuated from most of the area near the capital, except for the town of Douma, where negotiations were still underway for rebels there to leave or face an all-out government offensive.
The government gave rebels in Douma — the area's largest town and stronghold of the powerful Army of Islam rebel group — an ultimatum to agree on leaving by late Saturday. Some pro-government news websites reported that the army was massing troops around Douma, adding that the ultimatum might be extended until Sunday.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that Syrian troops had been massing troops around Douma in case negotiations collapsed.
The army statement came shortly after another group of opposition fighters and their relatives left southern and western parts of eastern Ghouta Saturday afternoon, bringing President Bashar al-Assad's forces a step closer to eliminating threats from insurgents groups nearby.
State TV said 38 buses left the towns of Zamalka, Ein Tarma, Arbeen and Jobar, taking more than 1,700 rebels and civilians to the northwestern rebel-held province of Idlib. The channel said troops entered the towns and raised the national flag in Arbeen's main square.
"The importance of this victory lies in restoring security and stability to the city of Damascus and its surrounding areas after the suffering of its civilians from the crimes of terrorists over several years," said the army statement, read on TV by Brigadier General Ali Mayhoub.
The government forces' reclamation of most of eastern Ghouta reopens a major network of roads and highways that link Damascus with other parts of the country. Those routes have been closed since 2012, when rebels captured eastern suburbs of the capital.
The army statement vowed "to wipe out terrorism and bring back stability and security to all parts of Syria."
A crushing government offensive under the cover of Russian airstrikes that began February 18 has forced opposition fighters in most of eastern Ghouta to agree to evacuate and head to Idlib province.
"Arbeen, Zamalka, Jobar and Ein Tarma in eastern Ghouta are free of terrorists," shouted a correspondent for state-affiliated al-Ikhbariya TV channel from Arbeen.
State news agency SANA said 38,000 fighters and civilians had headed to Idlib over the past two weeks, marking one of the largest displacements since Syria's conflict began seven years ago. More than 100,000 others headed to government-controlled areas over the past weeks.
Before the last wave of violence began in eastern Ghouta last month, the U.N. had estimated that 393,000 people were living in the area under a tight government siege.
Tens of thousands of rebels and civilians have been relocated to Idlib over the past years from different parts of Syria, making it one of the most inhabited regions in the country.
The top U.N. official in Syria, Ali Al-Za'tari, told Dubai-based al-Arabiya TV in an interview aired Saturday that "Idlib cannot take more people."
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that a vehicle carrying evacuees from eastern Ghouta had a road accident in the government-held village of Nahr al-Bared, leaving five fighters and three civilians dead. It said the bus had left eastern Ghouta Friday night.