Locals, rebels bused out of Damascus suburb after 4-year siege

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.

Last update: Fri, 26/08/2016 - 23:12

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