Hundreds Evacuated From Damascus Suburb as Three-year Government Siege Ends

Sarah El Deeb and Zeynep Bilgonsoy
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People board buses leaving the Moadamiyeh suburb of Damascus, Syria, on Friday, Sept. 2, 2016.
People board buses leaving the Moadamiyeh suburb of Damascus, Syria, on Friday, Sept. 2, 2016.Credit: Associated Press
Sarah El Deeb and Zeynep Bilgonsoy

AP - More than 300 Syrians were bussed out of a rebel-held suburb of the capital, Damascus, in an evacuation Friday under a deal struck with the government that ends a punishing 3-year-long siege, allows rebel fighters to leave and restores state control over the area.

The suburb of Moadamiyeh is the latest opposition pocket to relent after residents could no longer take the suffering under sieges by Syria's military, with food supplies dwindling and key infrastructure like hospitals being destroyed. A nearby suburb, Daraya, surrendered and came under government control last week.

The accelerating pace of such surrenders points to the success of the military's tactic of sieges, even as it has brought international criticism and complaints from the UN has frequently over the difficulty of getting humanitarian aid to besieged residents.

An Associated Press reporter in Moadamiyeh saw security forces searching the luggage of dozens of men, women, and children before they boarded buses Friday, heading out of the suburb to shelters in a government-controlled neighborhood nearby.

Moadamiyeh, which a UN report said was gassed with toxic sarin in 2013, has suffered a three-year government siege, leaving its estimated 28,000 residents with dwindling food and medical supplies.

The first part of the deal's implementation evacuated about 340 people, including 62 gunmen who agreed to lay down their arms after taking advantage of a presidential amnesty, said the governor of Rural Damascus province, Alaa Munir Ibrahim.

Aside from the gunmen, the evacuees are all residents of the nearby suburb of Daraya who had been trapped in Moadamiyeh when the military launched a major offensive on Daraya earlier this year.

Once their evacuation to government-controlled areas is complete, the rebel gunmen in Moadamiyeh who refuse to hand over their weapons will leave, likely to rebel-held parts of northern Syria. The rest of the suburb's population will remain.

It was not clear when government security forces would take over control of the suburb.

Moadamiyeh's fall was a direct result of the collapse of resistance in Daraya, which had been under siege since 2012. Battered by the offensive launched this year, Daraya's residents finally reached a deal with the government, and last week the entire remaining population of the suburb — about 4,000 people out of an original 200,000 — was removed, drawing criticism that it was a forced displacement.

The offensive also cut off other rebel-held areas like Moadamiyah.

"The heroic acts of the Syrian army in Daraya led to the achievement in Moadamiyeh," Ibrahim, the provincial governor, told Syrian state TV.

He said other "settlement" deals with rebel-held Damascus suburbs were currently under discussion, and urged other gunmen to lay down their arms.

Since early on in the now 5 ½-year civil war, many of the towns and suburbs in the rural areas surrounding Damascus joined the opposition. But now rebel-held territory has been reduced to pockets, with the largest pocket east of the capital now a main target for sieges.

At a press conference in Geneva on Thursday, UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura warned that the government's siege tactics were forcing evacuations, saying that "after Daraya, we may have other Darayas."

De Mistura's humanitarian adviser, Jan Egeland, echoed his sentiment, saying the UN humanitarian task force for Syria had "failed the people of Daraya." The UN underlined that it had not been consulted on the Daraya deal, which it described as forced displacement.

Moadamiyeh's buildings and infrastructure appeared largely intact. Local rebels had negotiated several local truces with the government starting 2012, and the suburb was spared much of the destruction and bombing that beset Daraya, a mile away.

"I am very happy to get out," said 25-year old Samira Khadra, a resident of Daraya who had moved to Moadamiyeh, as she boarded one of eight waiting green buses with her mother and children.

Rajab Taysir al-Sheikh, a 55-year old resident of Daraya, said his former home was totally destroyed. He was now joining his family, evacuated last week from Daraya, in a shelter in a Damascus suburb.

"Nothing remains from my house except what I am carrying: two pants and some shirts," he said.

Hassan Ghandour, a former resident of Moadamiyeh and a lead negotiator on the deal, said most gunmen who are originally from Moadamiyeh will likely lay down their weapons and stay in the suburb. He said Daraya residents residing in Moadamiyeh are around 2,500 and will likely leave over the coming days. The deal also includes the release of detainees from Moadamiyeh currently held in government prisons.

Also Friday, a Kurdish official in Syria accused Turkish forces of opening and lobbing tear gas across the border to break up a protest by Kobani locals against a barrier wall being built by Turkey, killing one teenager.

A provincial Turkish official said security forces fired tear gas and used water cannons at some 400 protesters on the Syrian side of the border Friday, after they threw rocks at builders of the new wall. He said it was in line with riot control protocol to protect border security and that of the workers. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Delkhwaz Khalil, a Kurdish official in the semi-autonomous Kurdish administration in Kobani, said a 17-year old died and 80 people were wounded. He said seven wounded were in critical condition.

Turkey has been building a wall along its border with Syria since 2014.

The construction of the wall at Kobani began last week, when tension was highest between Turkey and Syria's Kurds. It came after Ankara sent tanks and warplanes into Syria to push advancing Kurdish fighters, as well as Islamic State group militants, from its borders.

The local government in the Turkish province of Sanliurfa issued a statement denying anyone was hurt, adding that the protesters lobbed fire bombs at the security forces.

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