damascu, SYRIA UNREST BOMBING.jpg
Photograph: EPA/SANA HANDOUT

Damascus (dpa) - The first buses carrying local residents and rebel fighters left the Damascus suburb of Daraya on Friday under a deal that will see the area evacuated after a four-year siege by government forces.

The UN's Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, called on Syria's ally Russia, as well as the United States, to ensure that the evacuees could leave freely and safely.

Pro-government al-Mayadeen television showed jubilant regime fighters chanting in praise of President Bashar al-Assad on the outskirts of the town as buses and ambulances carried the evacuees out.

The Syrian opposition reacted bitterly to the evacuation, saying that the international community had failed the people of Daraya.

The town only received its first food aid shipment in June, after four years of a siege imposed by government forces. Shortly afterwards, it was hit by government airstrikes that, according to local activists, prevented the food being distributed immediately.

Residents were suffering from severe shortages and malnutrition prior to the aid deliveries, according to local activists.

"Daraya did not fail today," George Sabra of the opposition peace talks team told dpa. "It was the international community who failed, and failed the people of Daraya."

The Syrian government has now regained control or negotiated local truces in much of the Damascus hinterland that fell into rebel hands earlier in the five-year conflict.

The evacuation of Daraya will help it secure the Mezzeh military airport, one of the capital's key strategic facilities.

But the opposition charges that many of the government gains in the region have been won by siege and starvation tactics, with rebel districts forced to surrender or sign local truces in order to gain supplies and put an end to devastating shelling and air raids.

According to the UN, some 600,000 people are currently under siege in Syria. Most of them are in rebel-held areas besieged by government forces, though both rebels and the Islamic State extremist group are also imposing sieges on government-held areas.

The figures do not include Aleppo in northern Syria, where up to 2 million are at risk of siege after government and rebel forces cut through each other's supply lines around the divided city.

The Daraya deal is due to see some 3,500 rebel fighters and their families bussed from Daraya to the rebel-held city of Idlib in north-western Syria, according to a member of the government negotiating team.

Another 4,000 civilians will be transported to other areas of Damascus over the next three days, leaving what will amount to a ghost town in the hands of the government.

A total of 270 fighters, their families and 300 other civilians left on the first day of the evacuation, the negotiator, who asked not to be quoted by name, said.

The United Nations said that while it was not involved in the evacuation, the lull in fighting allowed a small team from the UN and the Red Cross to enter Daraya "to meet with all parties and identify the key issues for the civilians," said Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

The fate of civilians trapped in Aleppo meanwhile topped the agenda at Friday talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva.

The two top diplomats discussed a 48-hour silence of arms in Aleppo, sought urgently by the UN to help tens of thousands of people trapped between government and rebel forces.

Kerry and Lavrov also plan to seek ways towards a country-wide ceasefire, in an effort to restart UN-brokered talks involving the US-backed rebels and the government, which has been getting support from Russian forces.

Related stories

Latest news

Trump-style rhetoric is making world more dangerous, Amnesty says

Divisive and "poisonous" language used by politicians such as US President Donald Trump is putting vulnerable populations at risk and making the whole world a more dangerous place, Amnesty International charged on Wednesday.

Canada soon to begin resettling Iraqi refugees, most of them Yezidis

Canada will resettle 1,200 survivors of the Islamic State campaign to target religious minorities in northern Iraq, Canadian officials announced Tuesday. 

Breitbart editor resigns after release of paedophilia comments

Milo Yiannopoulos, a controversial editor at the far-right Breitbart news website, resigned Tuesday after the emergence of recordings in which he appears to defend sexual relationships between young boys and older men.

Trump administration opens door for mass deportations

The US Department of Homeland Security laid the groundwork Tuesday for mass deportations of immigrants living illegally in the United States under an executive order by President Donald Trump last month.

Brexit bill: House of Lords says public can change mind on leaving EU

The British public should be able to change their minds on Brexit - just as Prime Minister Theresa May did, the upper chamber of parliament heard Tuesday during a marathon debate on legislation to kick off EU negotiations.

Italian lawmakers, rights activists clash over gay sex club scandal

Gay rights activists and conservative politicians clashed Tuesday after the chief of Italy's anti-discrimination office quit over allegations that money had been authorized for gay sex clubs.

EU countries agree new rules to avoid tax evasion

European Union finance ministers in Brussels on Tuesday reached a political agreement on new rules to ensure that multinational corporations do not declare profits in the countries where they pay the least tax but in the countries where they generate it.

Trump condemns "horrible, painful" anti-Jewish incidents

US President Donald Trump condemned a recent spate of threats against Jewish community targets across the United States, during a visit Tuesday to the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

FinMin expects Croatia to exit Excessive Deficit Procedure this spring

Finance Minister Zdravko Maric said on Tuesday Croatia could exit the Excessive Deficit Procedure this spring and that it was showing progress in correcting macroeconomic imbalances.

Austria seeks to create jobs, but new EU immigrants need not apply

Austria plans to create 160,000 jobs in the next three years by subsidizing companies, but the project has raised concerns because it effectively excludes people who recently immigrated from other EU countries.

Juncker: Not good for W. Balkans that some in Washington want to water down EU

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Tuesday it was not good for Western Balkan countries that some people in the new US administration gave the impression of being against the European Union because those countries needed the prospects of EU membership.

Citizens invited to help create Croatian version of Monopoly

A project to create a Croatian edition of Monopoly, in which citizens can participate by submitting proposals and which could become a souvenir for tourists, was presented at a press conference on Tuesday.

German state approves full-face veil ban

Legislation that bans face veils in select public spaces and situations was agreed by the government of the southeastern German state of Bavaria on Tuesday.

Indian restaurant Gaggan in Bangkok named Asia's best for third year

Bangkok's Indian eatery Gaggan on Tuesday was named the best restaurant in Asia for the third consecutive year by Asia's 50 Best Restaurants.

HGK: 16 Croatian companies to exhibit at IDEX defence exhibition

Sixteen Croatian companies will exhibit their products at the 13th IDEX 2017 defence exhibition in Abu Dhabi, to be held on February 19-23.