SYRIA (OBSERVATORY) – Opposition fighters have begun withdrawing from a pocket northeast of Damascus on Saturday and will go to the north of the country in a surrender deal that marks a new victory for President Bashar al-Assad, state television and an opposition official said.
Damascus will regain control of the eastern Peneloon pocket, 40 km away.
Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, is seeking to regain control of the last opposition stronghold near Damascus, taking advantage of the defeat of its militants in the eastern Ghouta, their last major stronghold near the capital.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said a fact-finding team of its inspectors visited a site in the Syrian city of Douma on Saturday and collected samples as the organization sought to determine whether chemical weapons were used there on April 7. The OPCW mission arrived in Damascus a week ago to investigate the incident.
France and the United States have accused Russia of blocking access to the site, which medical aid agencies say has seen dozens of people killed. The alleged attack led to the abandonment of opposition fighters from the last town they controlled in the eastern Ghouta.
Russia and Damascus say the alleged gas attack, which led to Western attacks on Syria, is apocryphal.
State television said 3,200 gunmen and their families were expected to leave the region on Saturday in preparation for their transfer to Idlib and Tripoli, which are controlled by the opposition near the border with Turkey.
A spokesman for an opposition group in eastern Kalamoun said fighters had agreed to withdraw after six people were killed in intensive Russian bombardment of areas near the town of Rahiba last week.
Said Sayed Saif of the Martyr Ahmed Abdu Brigades that this matter “make the factions of the Free Army sit at the negotiating table with the Russian side and reached an agreement the most important items to hand over heavy weapons and the exit of fighters to the north.”
The first convoy of 10 buses left Rahibah and was under inspection in a nearby area before completing its journey north.
– Humanitarian situation –
Meanwhile, the Syrian army and its allies intensified their shelling of a besieged enclave south of Damascus.
Footage on Syrian television showed a resurgence of smoke from the Black Stone area, which lies in a pocket of the Yarmouk refugee camp, which is controlled by the Islamic state and other hardline Islamist groups.
A commander in a regional military alliance fighting in support of Assad said they were targeting militant positions with all kinds of weapons, pointing out that Syrian army helicopters were targeting sites to organize the Islamic state.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) expressed deep concern over the fate of thousands of civilians, including some 12,000 Palestinian refugees, in and around Yarmouk refugee camp.
“The displacement continues as people move to the neighboring Yilda area … to escape the fighting,” said UNRWA spokesman Chris Janis. Some families are stable in Yarmouk either because they can not move because of the intensity of the fighting or because they chose to stay.”
“We do not have any figures on the number of people who moved, but the humanitarian situation in Yarmouk and Yalda is intolerable.”
After the restoration of the eastern Penaloon and the stronghold south of Damascus, only the last enclave will remain in the grip of the opposition, located north of the city of Homs.
However, Assad still lacks control over large areas of Syrian territory at the country’s borders with Jordan, Israel, Turkey and Iraq. The opposition controls an area of land in the south-west and northwest of the country, while Kurdish-led factions backed by the United States control an extended area in northern and eastern Syria.
Press Coverage Tom Perry and Leila Bassam in Beirut and Sulaiman Al Khalidi in Amman and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow – prepared by Salma Najm for the Arabic Bulletin – edited by Ahmed Subhi Khalifa