Hundreds of rebel fighters began leaving the Syrian enclave of Eastern Ghouta on Thursday, forced out after weeks of heavy aerial bombardment that has caused more than 1,500 deaths.
Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, is one of Syria's last significant rebel-held areas and the latest target of regime forces, who have besieged the territory. The Syrian regime is continuing with a sweeping campaign to flush rebel fighters from key parts of the country with the backing of their powerful ally Russia and its warplanes.
Fighters belonging to the group Ahrar Al-Sham agreed to leave the Eastern Ghouta town of Harasta in a deal with the regime and Russia's support. Syria and Russia have agreed to provide them safe passage, and allowed them to take their weapons and families with them.
As many as 1,500 fighters and 6,000 of their family members are expected leave Harasta, according to Al-Manar, a Lebanese television station affiliated with the regime-allied armed group Hezbollah. Syrian state news agency SANA reported that more than 500 people on 20 buses had left by early afternoon.
Thirteen men held by armed groups in the town were also released earlier in the day as part of the deal, Syrian state TV reported.
Ahrar Al-Sham is one of three main rebel groups in Eastern Ghouta. The regime offensive on Eastern Ghouta has split the enclave into three pockets, and Thursday's evacuation would essentially return power to the regime over the smallest of these pockets around Harasta.
There is no indication that the other two armed rebel groups have struck similar deals, but the agreement puts pressure on them to leave.
A spokesman for Ahrar al-Sham, Omran Mohammad, confirmed the agreement and said that fighters had begun leaving Thursday and were allowed to take their weapons and families.
It wasn't immediately clear where they would go, but previous similar deals have bussed rebels to Idlib, the only province fully controlled by rebel groups.
Idlib is also being bombarded by the regime. On Wednesday, 20 people, including 16 children, were killed in Idlib's countryside, according to the White Helmets rescue group and the activist Idlib Media Center.
Eastern Ghouta devastated
Mohammad, from Ahrar Al-Sham, said that the fighters agreed to leave because "people's lives matter and we had the obligation to save their lives."
Nearly 1,600 people have been killed in Eastern Ghouta since February 18, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Meanwhile, thousands of people are still trapped in Eastern Ghouta, caught in the standoff between rebel groups and regime forces.
In a sign of his confidence that the regime would soon seize Eastern Ghouta, Assad release a propaganda video this week of himself driving through the enclave in a Honda Civic and meeting with Syrian fighters.
More than 50,000 people have already fled the enclave, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.
"The needs and numbers of people leaving Ghouta are larger than expected, but we fear that the worst is still to come," said the group's deputy director for Syria, Erik Abild.
"We're also deeply concerned about those still trapped in Eastern Ghouta and exposed to continuous fighting. Children and families are being killed in schools, hospitals and basements. This has to stop."