Temporary Truce Enables Mass Evacuation From Damascus Suburb

Rare case of coordination between warring forces enables hundreds of civilians to flee the mounting humanitarian crisis.

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Hundreds of Syrian civilians, some carried on stretchers, fled a besieged rebel-held suburb of Damascus following a temporary cease-fire in the area, activists and officials said Sunday.

The evacuation from Moadamiyeh, where local activists say at least six people have died of starvation, began Saturday and was still underway Sunday.

It was not immediately clear who brokered the cease-fire between rebels and government forces. It marks a rare case of coordination between opposing forces in Syria's civil war.

"It's (been) an area of military operations for months, so to see this halt of fire, and to see this exodus of people, means there's a high level cooperation — not regular cooperation," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Neither Syrian officials nor activists close to rebels would discuss the cease-fire.

Syria's state news agency SANA said Saturday that 2,000 women and children left the suburb for temporary housing in the nearby suburb of Qudsaya.

The humanitarian situation for the thousands trapped in Moadamiyah has been deteriorating for months. In a bid to squeeze rebels there, Syrian forces blocked food and supplies from entering the suburb on the western edge of Damascus.
Its residents have been hit hard. Syrian activists of the Moadamiyeh Media Center reported six people died of starvation in September: two women and four children.

One woman described how her 18-month-old daughter lost half her weight as she struggled to nourish her on boiled lentil water.

It's not clear how many people still live in the area. An Moadamiyeh Media Center activist estimated some 12,000 people likely remain. The activist only identified himself as Mahmoud out of security concerns.

Also Sunday, Islamic extremists blew up a shrine of a mystic Muslim saint, Issa Abdul-Qader al-Rafai, in the northern town of Busaira, the Observatory said. A shrine belonging to the mystic's brother was destroyed in September.

Islamic extremists form some of the most powerful rebel groups battling the government of President Bashar Assad. They also have burnt churches, smashed statues, and desecrated shrines belonging to Islam's minority Muslim sects, and those belonging to mystic Sufi branches of Islam.

Late Saturday, tank shells slammed into a building in the southern city of Daraa, killing at least 11 people huddling there for safety, the Observatory said. It said at least three children, including a baby found still wearing a diaper, and four women were among those killed.

"Oh God, what a disaster!" a woman wailed in a video uploaded by a pro-rebel media activist. The video showed a man holding the burnt, charred corpse of a baby, wrapped in a sheet. Nearby lay a bloodied young girl with short curly hair, and a lifeless boy wearing blue underwear.

The civilians were killed in crossfire during a battle between Syrian forces and rebels, said a pro-rebel activist in a nearby town, who identified himself as Abu Musab. He said the building was hit after Syrian forces fired tank shells toward rebels hiding near the building.

There are frequent clashes in the city and province of Daraa between Assad's forces and the mostly Sunni rebels fighting to overthrow him.

Destruction in Damascus, September 12, 2013. Credit: AFP

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