The Syrian government has reached an evacuation deal with fighters from Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) to leave the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus.
The official SANA news agency announced on Monday that the fighters and their families, numbering about 5,000, would be evacuated in two stages, the first of which would see 1,500 people transported to the rebel-controlled Idlib province in northwestern Syria.
The deal is part of a wider agreement between HTS, formerly al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, and President Bashar al-Assad’s government to surrender heavy and medium military hardware.
Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from Beirut in neighbouring Lebanon, said HTS was compelled to accept the government’s demands for releasing prisoners and allowing thousands of Syrians from two besieged loyalist towns, Kefraya and Foua, to head to government-controlled territory.
SANA reported that these include 85 prisoners, “mostly women, children and elderly”, from the rebel-controlled town of Eshtabraq.
“Pro-government forces have long wanted to fully evacuate the predominantly Shia towns because that would deny the rebels the ability to pressure Damascus by threatening to target them,” our correspondent said.
Buses to transport the rebels and their relatives had already begun gathering around Yarmouk, according to local news media reports.
Al Jazeera’s Khodr said this was the fourth such agreement in recent weeks and constituted another important win for government forces and their allies.
“Rebels have already surrendered Eastern Ghouta, which was their main stronghold close to the capital, and a pocket of territory in the Qalamoun region, northeast of Damascus,” she said.
“In a few days, rebel factions linked to the Free Syrian Army are expected to hand over the districts of Babbila, Beit Sahm and Yalda in southern Damascus in order to stave off a military operation.”
Nevertheless, the agreement falls short of securing for the government control of entire southern Damascus, with a few pockets of territory still under control of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group.
Government forces have been engaged in a two-week-long offensive to recapture those pockets, but ISIL fighters have put up fierce resistance in areas where heavy weapons have proved to be of limited use.