MOSCOW: The last Syrian rebel group in the eastern Ghouta near Damascus denied reports it had agreed with Russia to leave the town of Douma, after the Russian military said it had reached a deal for insurgents to surrender the area.
Douma, controlled by the Jaish al-Islam rebel group, is the last patch of eastern Ghouta still held by insurgents who have been routed in a ferocious offensive by the Russian-backed Syrian military that began in February.
“Our position is still clear and firm and it is rejecting forced displacement and demographic change in what remains of eastern Ghouta,” Jaish al-Islam military spokesman Hamza Birqdar said in a message posted on his Telegram feed. The Russian news agency Interfax earlier cited the Russian military’s general staff saying it had reached agreement with insurgents in Douma to leave, without saying where they would go.
Douma is surrounded by Syrian government forces. There are tens of thousands of civilians in the town. Syrian state TV said a deal had nearly been reached for Jaish al-Islam to leave Douma to the Idlib region of northwestern Syria, citing preliminary information. Thousands of people – fighters from other rebel groups, their families and other civilians – have been leaving to Idlib from elsewhere in eastern Ghouta in convoys of buses that have been given safe passage to the northwest.
The government offensive in eastern Ghouta has killed more than 1,600 civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says. The recovery of Douma would seal a major victory for President Bashar al-Assad, crushing the last big rebel stronghold near Damascus after seven years of conflict.