Sick and injured civilians were shown on Syrian state television leaving a besieged rebel enclave in eastern Ghouta on Tuesday in what insurgents and the United Nations said was a medical evacuation.
Women carrying small children, men hobbling on crutches and an old man in a wheelchair were shown walking among a group of Syrian soldiers near the al-Wafideen crossing point out of the enclave.
The army’s near month-old campaign of air and artillery strikes in the last big rebel bastion near the capital has killed more than 1,100 civilians, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says.
Syrian government forces have captured more than half of eastern Ghouta, a pocket of satellite towns and densely populated farmland where the United Nations says 400,000 civilians have lived under siege since 2013. Advances in recent days have cut off the major towns Douma and Harasta from each other and neighbouring areas, splitting eastern Ghouta into separate enclaves.
Yasser Delwan, a political official with the Jaish al-Islam rebel faction, said the people who left Douma were the first of several batches of patients expected to be evacuated for treatment outside.
The group had said on Monday it had reached an agreement, through the United Nations, with the government’s key ally, Russia, to evacuate wounded people.
The government assault on eastern Ghouta has become one of the biggest offensives of the war now entering its eighth year, and is on course to deal the rebels their biggest defeat since the battle of Aleppo in 2016.
Russia has offered rebels safe passage out with their families if they surrender the territory, a tactic Damascus and Moscow have used elsewhere across Syria as they have recaptured more and more of the country since 2015.
The two main Ghouta factions have so far vowed to stay and fight.
Tuesday’s evacuation was the first deal agreed by rebels with Russia and Damascus to allow civilians out since the start of the government offensive.
But Hamza Birqdar, Jaish al-Islam’s military spokesman, said in a video message online on Tuesday that the fighters would continue to defend the Ghouta till the end.
The United Nations has called for the urgent evacuation of 1,000 patients in need of emergency medical care. It says it is worried about the entire population of the eastern Ghouta, where food and medicine were already running out before the assault began in mid-February.
With the area now split into different parts by the army advance, Delwan said his rebel faction was in charge only of evacuations from Douma, and not from other towns.
State television said the first group comprised about 35 people and they would go to a shelter on the outskirts of the nearby Syrian capital Damascus.
Families are sleeping in the open in the streets in Douma with no more room in basements to shelter from the bombs, local authorities have said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said government bombardment continued early on Tuesday in the southern part of the enclave, which includes the towns of Saqba, Kafr Batna and Jisreen.
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