Evacuation of Syria’s Douma suspended over disagreements

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Evacuations from the rebel-held town of Douma near the Syrian capital were suspended on Thursday, days after hundreds of opposition fighters and their relatives left for areas of the country's north as part of a surrender deal following a massive government offensive.

State news agency SANA said the suspension was the result of disagreements within the Army of Islam rebel group, adding that buses that entered Douma for the evacuations on Thursday returned without passengers.

Douma is the last town held by rebels in the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. Other rebel groups agreed to relocate to the north after a Russia-backed government offensive in February and March that killed hundreds of people and caused catastrophic destruction.

The Army of Islam appears to have reached a deal with Russia to relocate to parts of northern Syria controlled by Turkey-allied opposition forces. On Wednesday, 650 fighters and civilians escorted by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent left Douma and headed north toward the town of Jarablus, according to SANA and opposition activists.

The Army of Islam has never publicly confirmed the agreement, and is said to be divided on whether to leave Douma, with hard-liners wanting to stay and fight.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the suspension was triggered by measures taken by Turkish troops in areas where opposition fighters are arriving. It said there are about 14,000 Army of Islam fighters in Douma and the nearby eastern Qalamoun region.

On Thursday, a reporter for Syrian state TV speaking from an area on the edge of Douma said no Army of Islam fighters have left so far, adding that those who departed over the past three days belonged to other groups.

The Army of Islam, which has deep roots in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, has held firm in recent weeks as virtually all the other insurgents of eastern Ghouta have reached deals to relocate to the rebel-held north. The rebels say such agreements amount to forced displacement, but have reluctantly given in after years of siege and weeks of heavy bombardment.

The Observatory said the Army of Islam is trying to negotiate a new deal with the Russians and the Syrian government that could allow some fighters to hand over their weapons and remain in the town.