The exodus of Syrian rebels and civilians from the eastern suburbs of Damascus continued on Tuesday for the sixth straight day in what is shaping up to be one of the largest organized population transfers in the country’s seven-year-long civil war.
The population moves, condemned by the United Nations as forced transfers of people, are the result of a Russia-negotiated evacuation deal between Syrian rebels and the government amid a relentless offensive by President Bashar Assad’s forces.
More than 13,000 fighters, their family members, and other civilians have been bused out of a second pocket of the besieged eastern Ghouta region, Syrian state media said Tuesday.
The SANA news agency said 6,749 people, among them 1,620 fighters, were bused out of the towns of Arbeen, Ein Terma, Zamalka, and Jobar late on Monday. They followed 6,416 people who departed in the two previous days.
Last week, 7,000 people were bused out of a separate pocket of eastern Ghouta.
They were taken to the rebel-held Idlib province in northwest Syria, where more than 1 million others have taken refuge from the violence that has engulfed the country. Living conditions in the camps there are abysmal, the U.N. and aid agencies say, and the province is exposed to regular Syrian government, Russian, and occasionally American airstrikes targeting markets, schools, hospitals, and bases for militants and al-Qaida-linked groups.
Al-Manar TV, which belongs to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, said tens of thousands more are still expected to leave eastern Ghouta for the north. Hezbollah has fought alongside Assad’s forces throughout the civil war.
The evacuations are part of an arrangement that has rebels surrendering the suburbs to the government after years of siege, and five weeks of particularly intensive bombardment. Rebel fighters and civilians who want to leave are then being bused to rebel-held territory in northern Syria.
Talks about evacuating a third and final pocket of the eastern Ghotua region, which would encompass Douma, the region’s largest town, were deadlocked over arrangements for a prisoner release, according to al-Manar TV.
The Syrian government wants the Army of Islam, which controls Douma, to release its captives. The Army of Islam is negotiating with Russia, a chief Assad ally, but not the government.
Late Monday, rebels released 28 prisoners to the government.
However, tens if not hundreds of thousands languish in the Assad government’s abominable prisons. The government has refused to negotiate any mass prisoner release despite pressure from the U.N.
According to a 2017 report from the Amnesty International, Syrian authorities executed between 5,000 and 13,000 prisoners between 2011 and 2015. The U.S. State Department, citing satellite photos, said the same year that authorities had built a crematorium to hide the scope of the killings.
In other developments, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem arrived in Oman on Monday in a rare trip by a Syrian official to the Gulf Arab countries. He will be meeting with several high-level Omani officials, said the Oman News Agency.