Russia expects to reach an agreement with a major Syrian rebel group to arrange its exit from the last rebel-held town in eastern Ghouta.
The defence ministry’s Lt Gen Stanislav Gadzhimagomedov told Russian news agencies that Russia’s military is in talks with the Army of Islam, the largest and most powerful group in eastern Ghouta, for it to leave the town of Douma.
Lt Gen Gadzhimagomedov said he expects the Russian military to “take them out soon” and that the rebels have reportedly indicated their willingness to lay down their arms.
Thousands of rebel fighters and their families have left three eastern Ghouta pockets in the past few weeks, after years of siege and weeks of heavy bombardment by the Syrian army and Russia’s air force.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there are divisions within the rebel group over the negotiations, with some hardliners refusing any talks with Russians.
The Observatory said some fighters asked to be allowed to go to the southern province of Daraa, but that the Russians rejected this request.
Syria’s pro-government Al-Watan daily said the Army of Islam and the Russians have reached an “understanding”, adding that each side will study a draft agreement within the next three days.
Al-Watan quoted Syrian legislator Mohammed Kheir Seiryoul, who is originally from Douma, as saying the understanding could lead to an agreement to dissolve the Army of Islam.
During this period, its members would hand over their heavy weapons and the Syrian government would assume control of state institutions in the town.
A civilian committee representing Douma said in a statement after meeting Russian officials that the negotiations “are extremely difficult and no quick results should be expected”.
Talks with the Russians will resume within three days, it said.
Douma-based opposition activist Haitham Bakkar said the town was subjected to some artillery shelling early on Monday that wounded several people.
On Monday, a convoy of 56 buses carrying 3,641 people, including 850 fighters from various rebel factions, was preparing to leave the towns of Jobar, Zamalka, Ein Terma, and Arbeen toward Idlib, state-affiliated al-Ikhbariya TV reported.
The Russian Defence Ministry’s Centre for Reconciliation in Syria said in a statement that more than 400 people left Douma early on Monday. It put the total figure of civilians and rebels evacuated from the area since the Russia-sponsored “humanitarian pauses” were announced at 114,000.
Army of Islam spokesman Hamza Bayraqdar blasted the group’s former ally, the Faylaq al-Rahman rebel group, accusing it of helping government forces capture more than 80% of rebel-held districts after they dried out artificial swamps set up by insurgents to slow down the army offensive.