Thousands leave Syria's Douma as evacuations wrapping up

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Thousands of Islamist fighters and their relatives left the Syrian town of Douma they once controlled as the last evacuations from Eastern Ghouta continued Friday, a monitor said.

The fighters from the Jaish al-Islam group left overnight with thousands of civilians on board 85 buses that took them to areas of northern Syria still held by rebels.


The evacuations are part of a deal brokered by Damascus's Russian ally to re-establish regime control on Eastern Ghouta, a area just on the edge of the capital that had escaped government control since 2012.

"After midnight, 85 buses left Eastern Ghouta carrying 4,000 people, both fighters and civilians," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring organization said.

A top Syrian rebel official told AFP on Thursday that his faction only agreed to abandon its battered enclave outside Damascus because of an alleged toxic gas attack.

“Of course, the chemical attack is what pushed us to agree” to a withdrawal from Douma, said Yasser Dalwan, a high-ranking member of Jaish al-Islam.

It was the first public acknowledgement by Jaish al-Islam of a deal reached for Douma, their last rebel holdout in the Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus.

The agreement was announced on Sunday morning by Syria’s government and its ally Russia, just hours after toxic gases were allegedly released on Douma.

First responders there said more than 40 people died Saturday after suffering symptoms consistent with chemical exposure, including wheezing, discolored skin and foaming at the mouth.

World powers have threatened a strong response, with French President Emmanuel Macron saying Thursday he had "proof" Syria's government was behind the attack.

Civilians evacuate

More buses carrying evacuees and their belongings continued to leave Douma, just east of the Syrian capital, amid heightened tensions on Friday.

The video from the Russian Ministry of Defense showed buses driving through the Muhayam al-Wafideen checkpoint.

The evacuation takes place under a deal mediated by Russia to hand over the town to the Syrian government and end a months-long military siege.

The Russian military announced on Thursday that the Syrian government is now in full control of the town on the outskirts of Damascus that was held by the rebels and that was the site of a suspected chemical attack over the weekend.

More than 13,500 Syrian rebel fighters and their families left Douma this month.

Hamza Bayraqdar, spokesman for Jaysh al-Islam, the main rebel group that once controlled Douma, said his fighters had all evacuated. They handed over their heavy and medium weapons, as well as maps of land mines and the tunnels they dug, according to Syrian state media.

US President Donald Trump on Thursday put off a final decision on possible military strikes against Syria after tweeting earlier that they could happen “very soon or not so soon at all.”

The White House said he would consult further with allies.

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