Russia says operation in Eastern Ghouta is nearly over

Russian defence minister says 130,000 civilians and 11,000 rebels have left Eastern Ghouta over two weeks

A Syrian soldier looks at destroyed buildings nearly a week after retaking the town of Harasta from the rebels, in Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on March 29, 2018.
An agreement between Russia and the Islamist faction Faylaq al-Rahman has already seen nearly 20,000 people quit the towns of Arbin and Zamalka and the Jobar district since last week. / AFP PHOTO / STR
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Russia's foreign ministry said on Thursday that the "counter-terrorism operation" in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta was almost over, with rebels remaining in just one town after abandoning the rest of the enclave.

A hub of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar Al Assad, Eastern Ghouta was until last month the biggest and most populous remaining rebel stronghold near the capital. The regime so far has captured more than 90 per cent of the enclave, and are draining the last opposition pockets with negotiated withdrawals.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the "counter-terrorist operation" in Eastern Ghouta was nearly completed, without giving further details of negotiations with the rebels still holding out.

A senior official for Jaish Al Islam, the faction that controls the last Ghouta town still in insurgent hands, Douma, said the group was still engaged in negotiations with Russia over the town's fate, which began several days ago.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said on Thursday that talks with Jaish Al Islam rebels about them leaving Eastern Ghouta were under way, according to RIA news agency.

Mr Bogdanov also said that there was a chance for progress on the issue.

Syrian state TV reported that the Syrian government had given the rebels 72-hour ultimatum to leave, starting Wednesday night.

Last week, thousands of rebels in other parts of Ghouta accepted a Russia-brokered deal for safe passage with their families to other rebel-held areas.

Russian Defence Sergei Shoigu said on Thursday that 130,000 civilians and 11,000 rebels had left Eastern Ghouta over the past two weeks since the evacuations began.

Speaking after talks with the UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura in Moscow, Mr Shoigu said rebels had attempted to put dozens of suicide bombers on buses evacuating residents from Ghouta.

Alerted by residents, the military found seven belts packed with explosives for suicide missions on Monday, another 32 on Tuesday and nine on Wednesday, he said.

"It's easy to imagine what would happen if those suicide attackers blew themselves up on the buses carrying women and children."

The capture of Ghouta would leave the north-western province of Idlib as the last major rebel-held territory seven years after an armed uprising against his regime began.

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Mr de Mistura also met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss the establishment of a Syrian constitutional commission, the humanitarian situation in the country, as well as "the date and form of the next round of the intra-Syrian dialogue in Geneva", according to Mr Bogdanov.

Mr de Mistura had warned, earlier this month, that Syria is heading for a catastrophic partition and could see the return of ISIL if "there is no inclusive peace settlement".

“Without an inclusive political process, including those who are excluded, particularly the majority, the Sunnis, Daesh will come back,” he said.

Meanwhile, the US Central Command chief General Joseph Votel called on all parties involved in the Syrian peace process to comply with the UN's resolutions.

“We call on these parties to observe the UN ceasefire to pay strict attention to the humanitarian situation and to pursue solutions to these challenges through diplomatic changes as opposed to through the military chains,” Gen Votel said during a teleconference briefing.

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