Rebels, civilians leave town after four-year siege

Escorted by armed troops, dozens of insurgents and their families left this war-wrecked suburb of the Syrian capital on Friday as part of a forced evacuation deal struck with the government to end a four-year siege and aerial campaign that has left the area in ruins.

The capitulation by rebel forces in Daraya, an early bastion of the uprising against President Bashar Assad, provides another boost for his forces amid a stalemate in the fight for Aleppo, Syria's largest city.

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It also improves security around Assad's seat of power, pacifying an entire region southwest of Damascus that was once a backbone of the rebellion. Daraya was the last remaining rebel holdout in the region known as western Ghouta—and the closest to the capital.

The mass relocation of the suburb's residents reflects the government's ongoing military strategy to break up Sunni population areas, weakening the rebellion against it. It also highlights concerns over the forced displacement of members of the Sunni majority, seen by some as a government policy to strengthen its base and create a corridor made up of its minority supporters.

Following the deal struck late Thursday, Daraya's rebels began evacuating in government buses on Friday, a process expected to take several days. Around 700 gunmen are to be allowed safe passage to the opposition-held northern province of Idlib, while some 4,000 civilians will be taken to temporary shelter in government-controlled Kisweh, south of Daraya.

The U.N., which said it was not consulted over the plan, expressed concern over the evacuation, saying it was imperative that those participating do so voluntarily.

As the first white government bus carrying evacuees emerged from Daraya carrying mostly women and children, Syrian army soldiers swarmed the vehicle, shouting pro-Assad slogans. Inside, armed troops guarded the doors as the women tried to hide their faces. Nine buses left Daraya on Friday.

One of Daraya's fighters, Tamam Abouel Kheir, posted a video message saying, "We are forced to leave. But we will return, our nation."

The post included pictures of his loved ones and a photo of a group of young men visiting the Daraya cemetery to pay their respects to the hundreds who died in the fighting. "If only we could take the tombs of our martyrs with us," he wrote.

Dr. Mohamad Diaa, a 27-year-old general practitioner in Daraya, said he would likely leave Saturday with the rebels heading to Idlib. "Today married civilians and families. Tomorrow, the rest of the shabab leave," he said, using Arabic slang for young men.

His family left Syria long before, but he chose to stay behind, Diaa said, giving only his first and middle names because he feared for his safety. He said he hoped the presence of the Red Crescent would be enough to prevent the government from arresting the evacuating rebels.

Daraya-based opposition activist Hussam Ayash said residents were "trying to absorb the shock" of suddenly having to leave. "It's difficult, but we have no choice," he said.

Daraya is part of "Rural Damascus," a province that includes the capital's suburbs and farmland. It saw some of the first demonstrations against Assad after the 2011 uprising against his family's rule in which residents took to the streets, sometimes carrying red and white roses to reflect the peaceful nature of their protests.

After the uprising turned into insurgency, the suburb became a persistent threat to the government's nearby Mezzeh air base. It was pummeled by government airstrikes, barrel bombs and fighting over the years. In August 2012, around 400 residents were killed by pro-government militiamen who stormed the suburb following heavy fighting and days of shelling, according to opposition activists.

Once known for its workshops that produced handmade wooden furniture, Daraya has been besieged and blockaded by government forces since November 2012, with only one food delivery by the United Nations allowed to reach it during that time. It has been held by a coalition of ultraconservative Islamic militias, including the Martyrs of Islam Brigade.

An Associated Press journalist who entered the suburb Friday saw a landscape of severely damaged and deserted buildings, some of them charred. Black smoke rose on the horizon — caused by the rebels burning their belongings before evacuating, according to Syrian army soldiers.

In a statement, the U.N. said it was neither involved nor consulted about the evacuation plan, adding, "the world is watching."

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said a small team of U.N. and Red Cross aid workers would travel to Daraya "to meet with all parties and identify the key issues for the civilians."

"We are using this lull in the fighting to get in and see what we can do and obviously see for ourselves what the situation is inside the city," Dujarric told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York.

Daraya is the latest rebel-held area to surrender to government troops following years of siege. Opposition activists and human rights groups accuse the government of using siege and starvation tactics to force surrender by the opposition. Last December, Syrian rebels evacuated the last district they controlled in the central city of Homs, a major symbol of the uprising, after a nearly three-year siege. Rebels there also headed to Idlib, handing the government a significant victory in central Syria.

The first major truce deal was struck in the Damascus suburb of Moadamiyeh, west of Daraya, in 2014. It was followed by truces and cease-fires in the suburbs of Babila, Yalda and Barzeh — all deals that swung heavily in the government's favor and pacified the region.

Daraya provided a stark example of the price of rebuffing truce overtures. For years, government helicopters conducted a brutal aerial campaign, pounding the suburb with barrel bombs — large containers packed with fuel, explosives and scraps of metal. The Syrian government denies using barrel bombs.

Diaa said for the last eight months Daraya has been pounded with hundreds of barrel bombs, as the government attempted to storm it. It was left choked off, with no supply lines and no roads in or out. The U.N.'s humanitarian chief, Stephen O'Brien, told the U.N. Security Council earlier this year that severe food shortages were forcing some people in Daraya to eat grass.

Residents said the situation became unbearable after the town's remaining field hospital was bombed and destroyed last week. The government had in recent months also encroached on the town's farmlands—the only source of food for the local population.

Diaa said Daraya's residents were let down by the international community and by rebel factions in Daraa and eastern Ghouta who did not come to their rescue.

"We had hoped someone would stand by us and put some pressure on the regime. But it didn't happen," he said.

___

Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb in Beirut and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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