By BASSME MROUE , Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — A small group of Syrian civilians left the rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta just outside of Damascus on Monday while the area's largest armed rebel group said it agreed with Russian forces to have the wounded evacuated from the besieged territory.
State-run Syrian TV broadcast footage showing a group of men, women and children it says left the town of Madyara after it was captured by Syrian troops on Sunday. The TV showed several women carrying babies and welcoming the Syrian army, and claiming the rebels were preventing civilians from leaving eastern Ghouta.
The civilians used a corridor established by the Syrian army amid the military's gains that have effectively divided eastern Ghouta into three parts.
Recapturing the enclave would mark one of the most significant victories for President Bashar Assad in the seven-year civil war. It would also be the worst setback for rebels since the opposition was ousted from the eastern half of the city of Aleppo in late 2016 following a similar siege and bombing campaign.
Eastern Ghouta is larger and more populated, with some 400,000 people believed to be living there, trapped under a relentless air and ground bombardment and a crippling years-long siege. More than 1,000 people have been killed since the large-scale government offensive began on Feb. 18.
In rapid advances over the weekend, Syrian government forces split eastern Ghouta in two — a northern and southern part — then cut off key towns of Douma and Harasta from the rest of the enclave, further squeezing the residents inside them. Douma is eastern Ghouta's largest settlement.
The military's advances have apparently also increased the fear and confusion among residents and armed groups inside the territory. Local council member Iyad Abdelaziz said residents and local authorities are now considering evacuating the town.
Many, however, are too scared to leave through corridors set up by the Syrian government and their Russian allies.
The largest rebel group in eastern Ghouta, the Army of Islam, said it agreed with Russian forces to evacuate the wounded from the enclave. Its statement said the deal with the Russians was reached through the United Nations.
The Army of Islam said the wounded will be evacuated in stages but made no mention if they are rebel fighters or civilians. The group also did not say when the evacuations would begin or where the wounded would be taken.
Meanwhile, thousands of people were fleeing the northwestern town of Afrin on Monday as Turkish troops and Turkey-backed opposition fighters inch closer to completely besieging it. Ebrahim Ebrahim, a Europe-based spokesman for the largest Kurdish group in Syria, the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, said those fleeing were heading toward government-controlled areas.
He said people are fleeing out of fear that Turkish troops and Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters might commit atrocities against the Kurds and minorities in the town.
Turkish troops have destroyed water and power stations that supply the town of Afrin, making it difficult for people to stay there, Ebrahim said. He blamed Russia and Turkey for what he called "war crimes that are being committed in Afrin."
Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper also reported that civilians were leaving the town of Afrin, heading to government-controlled areas and the town of Manbij, held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
Turkey launched a military offensive against the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia known as YPG, to clear its fighters from the enclave of Afrin. Ankara considers the YPG a terror organization linked to its own Kurdish insurgency.