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Russian authorities announce government in ‘full control’ of East Ghouta amidst continued evacuations

AMMAN: Douma and the formerly rebel-held East Ghouta suburbs are under […]

AMMAN: Douma and the formerly rebel-held East Ghouta suburbs are under “full control” of the Syrian government, Russian representatives said on Thursday, while evacuations from the city continued.

“Today marked a landmark event in Syria’s history,” Yuri Yevtushenko, the head of the Russian Center for Reconciliation in Syria, told the Moscow-run news agency TASS on Thursday. He added that the Syrian flag had been hoisted over Douma, the de facto capital of the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus.

Russian military police entered Douma on Thursday “to maintain law and order during a transitional period,” before Syrian government forces enter the city, TASS reported.

Syrian state media has not declared control over the East Ghouta suburbs.

The leadership of Jaish al-Islam, the faction that controlled Douma, reportedly left the city on Wednesday evening and headed towards opposition-held northern Aleppo before Russian forces entered.

Jaish al-Islam has not released any official statements about the faction’s departure from Douma city.

Syrian and Russian soldiers at al-Wafideen camp just outside Douma on Thursday. Photo by Youssef Karwashan/AFP.

The rebel faction surrendered and signed onto an evacuation agreement with the Syrian government this past Sunday after 48 hours of heavy pro-government bombardment and a reported chemical attack killed and injured scores of people. Prior to last weekend’s attacks, the faction had maintained that it would not accept any evacuation deal.

Since Sunday, more than 10,000 fighters and civilians left Douma via the nearby al-Wafideen crossing on buses headed for rebel-held northern Syria, according to estimates the Russian Ministry of Defense and Center for Reconciliation provided to TASS.

Evacuations from Douma continued on Thursday despite the entry of Russian forces, three civilians on the ground told Syria Direct on Thursday.

“More people want to leave, but have not been able to yet,” Mahmoud a-Dimashqi, an evacuee from Douma, told Syria Direct from a bus leaving the city on Thursday afternoon. “Some residents have been waiting two days to go,” he added.

Haitham Bakar, a journalist in Douma city, said he was still waiting for a spot on a bus to leave for an “unknown future” in the country’s north on Thursday.

“It’s mentally exhausting and debilitating to leave the city where you’ve spent your entire life,” Bakar told Syria Direct.

It was not immediately clear on Thursday whether evacuations will continue from the formerly rebel-held city in subsequent days.

One Jaish al-Islam member who had left Douma for the northern Aleppo countryside told Syria Direct on Thursday that “many fighters” for the rebel faction have not yet left Douma. He asked not be identified by name as he is not currently authorized to speak with the media.

The pro-government news outlet Damascus today reported on Thursday afternoon that “the last convoys of militants are now leaving East Ghouta” in a post on Telegram.

Residents walk along a street in Douma city on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Douma Revolution.

East Ghouta residents were among the first to protest in 2011 against the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. As protests transformed into armed conflict, East Ghouta became a stronghold of rebel groups looking to move on Damascus.

But the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) with the support of allied militias repelled rebel attempts to take the capital and, by mid-2013, encircled the eastern suburbs.

Pro-government forces launched a large scale-offensive in mid-February which broke rebel defensive lines. Following weeks of of heavy bombardment and swift government advances, rebels in the city of Harasta as well as Ghouta’s central sector signed separate evacuation agreements with the government last month.

The surrender and evacuation of Douma, the last rebel holdout in East Ghouta, leaves only two pockets of opposition-held territory remaining in the Syrian capital and its surrounding countryside.

Syrian rebel factions maintain control over a handful of besieged towns in south Damascus as well as an encircled pocket of mountainous territory northeast of the capital.

Rebel delegations in both pockets are currently negotiating with Russian representatives over the fate of their respective opposition-held enclaves.

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