Syrian troops tightened the noose on Sunday around a Palestinian refugee camp held by ISIS militants in southern Damascus where hundreds of civilians face an uncertain future, state media, witnesses and residents said.
Nearly two weeks into a campaign to capture the last area near the capital outside government control that has left many parts of the once-teeming Yarmouk camp in ruins, state media said that the al Qadm neighborhood next to the camp was retaken.
Opposition sources said the army was now engaged in fierce fighting with militants on the outskirts of Yarmouk camp where an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 militants are encircled.
The militants who are besieged in an ever-shrinking area have repelled successive raids to enter their heavily defended stronghold.
State television and the official SANA news agency said a deal had reportedly been reached between the army and “terrorist groups” in the camp to allow them safe passage to the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib in return for the evacuation of civilians in two besieged Shi’ite villages in the province.
It said the deal’s implementation would begin on Monday with buses arriving at the entrance of the camp.
It did not say which rebel groups were included, but a rebel source said the deal was with the militant Tahrir al Sham, spearheaded by Syria’s former al Qaeda offshoot, which has about 200 fighters in the camp.
Although Islamic State jihadists, the main insurgent group in the camp, have vowed to continue to fight, the surrender of their comrades in arms could hasten a similar deal, two opposition sources said.
The Yarmouk campaign is part of a wider Russian-backed offensive to regain the last pocket in opposition hands around the capital after retaking eastern Ghouta this month.
It has shown no sign of letting up since Western countries launched air strikes on April 14 to punish the government for a suspected poison gas attack.