A Syrian government rocket launcher is seen covered with snow in the Damascus countryside, Syria, Jan. 28, 2017.
A Syrian government rocket launcher is seen covered with snow in the Damascus countryside, Syria, Jan. 28, 2017.

Syrian media and a key monitoring group say government forces outside Damascus have regained control of a fresh-water spring that supplies the capital, after reaching a deal that allows rebel fighters dug in at the site to withdraw.

The state-controlled SANA news agency quoted a local governor Saturday as saying the evacuation of rebel fighters was delayed for several hours by bad weather.  Ala'a Ibrahim also said maintenance and repairs at the crippled water facility would begin as soon as the military declares the area secure.

The government advance sets the stage for an end to a nearly six-week standoff at the supply village northwest of Damascus that began with a December 22 explosion at a key processing plant.

The blast sent diesel fuel spewing into the Barada River, contaminating supplies and creating severe water shortages that upended daily life for most of the capital's 5.5 million residents.

The government blamed rebels for the blast, while opposition leaders attributed the the explosion and the resulting contamination to government airstrikes.

The United Nations said the equipment "was deliberately targeted" but did not fix blame for the blast.

On Saturday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has monitored the water crisis, confirmed the rebel pullback and said government forces entered the contested area with ambulances to evacuate wounded rebel fighters. A statement also confirmed that a Syrian flag had been raised at the site.  

However, Observatory chief Rami Abdurrahman said rebel fighters remained in nearby villages in the Barada Valley, and that the remaining militants included extremist fighters with links to al-Qaida.

Abdurrahman said the withdrawal deal calls for rebels who are not from the immediate area to relocate to Idlib province, a rebel stronghold in northwestern Syria.

Local rebels also would be allowed to depart, he said, but they also would be offered the option of switching sides in the civil war and fighting alongside government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

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