DAMASCUS // At least 1,500 civilians and rebels were evacuated from an opposition district in Damascus on Sunday, bringing the government closer to cementing its control over the Syrian capital.
Damascus has been insulated from some of the worst violence of Syria’s war, which has killed over 320,000 people since it began with anti-government protests in March 2011. But the government has made securing control of the last remaining rebel districts in the capital a key priority.
The evacuations from the Qabun district in north-east Damascus follow similar departures from the Barzeh and Tishrin neighbourhoods earlier this week.
About a dozen white buses transported residents and fighters out in the morning, after a deal for the neighbourhood was announced late on Saturday following heavy fighting.
At the edge of the district, two women embraced and wept as they faced the prospect of parting ways.
Suad, 22, sobbed as she explained she was leaving her friend Mona, also 22, to follow her family to Idlib province, a rebel-held area in north-west Syria.
“I didn’t want to leave, but I have to stay with my family, and they prefer to go Idlib after my uncle left with the group from Barzeh,” said Suad. “I never thought one day I’d be in this position. I can’t describe how I feel.”
Those who were departing boarded the buses with small bags, while others who had decided to stay registered their names at a military post.
The evacuation deal came on Saturday night after government forces advanced inside the neighbourhood.
“The Syrian army yesterday managed to encircle dozens of armed elements inside Qabun neighbourhood, forcing them to surrender and hand over their weapons,” said a source from the pro-regime National Defence Forces militia.
Signs of recent fighting, as well as years of previous bombardment and battles, were visible all around with rubble strewn across the streets from partly or completely destroyed buildings.
Tanks sent up clouds of dusts as they manouevered over the mounds of debris and dirt, and black smoke rose from fires still burning in the neighbourhood.
“A few days ago we couldn’t be here. The road was too dangerous,” said one soldier. Others showed off a tunnel they had discovered, one of many that rebels use to connect besieged neighbourhoods. One soldier indicated a tunnel 10 metres deep connecting Qabun with the town of Arbin in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta. “It was used by militants to smuggle weapons and food,” he said. Another tunnel – “the width of two cars” – had been discovered between the Barzeh and Qabun neighbourhoods and destroyed on Saturday.
A lieutenant, who declined to give him name, said the capture of Qabun took 15 days but had taken six months of planning.
“We would not have been able to succeed without controlling the network of tunnels. We found more than 10 tunnels so far, and there are still more.”
The evacuation deals for Qabun, Barzeh and Tishrin neighbourhoods follow a pattern of agreements under which the rebels agree to surrender in exchange for safe passage to opposition-held territory elsewhere.
The government says they are the best way to end the six-year war, but the opposition says it is forced into the agreements by regime bombardment and siege.
Two groups of evacuees left Barzeh neighbourhood this week, with one leaving from Tishrin. All three headed to Idlib province, in north-west Syria.
* Agence France-Presse