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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Syria troops prepare for anti-ISIL offensive near capital: monitor

Meanwhile evacuations in Eastern Ghouta come to an abrupt pause

A Syrian regime member walks amid the destruction in Jobar in Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus. In the south of the capital Syrian regime forces and allied militias have been gathering ahead of a planned operation against ISIL. Louai Beshara / AFP
A Syrian regime member walks amid the destruction in Jobar in Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus. In the south of the capital Syrian regime forces and allied militias have been gathering ahead of a planned operation against ISIL. Louai Beshara / AFP

Syrian regime forces and allied militias have been gathering around an area of southern Damascus, ahead of a planned operation against ISIL remnants, a war monitor said on Thursday.

For the past three years ISIL fighters have been in control of large parts of the Palestinian camp of Yarmuk and sections of the neighbouring districts of Hajar Al Aswad and Tadamun in the capital's south.

Last month, they overran the adjacent Qadam neighbourhood, taking advantage of Syrian troops being busy with an operation against rebels in Eastern Ghouta on the capital's northeastern flank.

"Since Sunday, reinforcements of regime forces and loyalist fighters - especially Palestinians - have been sent to the south of Damascus, in preparation for a military offensive to end the IS presence in the capital," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, using a different acronym for ISIL.

"Palestinian fighters will be at the forefront of any military advance on the Yarmuk camp," the head of the Observatory Rami Abdel Rahman said.

Pro-regime newspaper Al Watan also reported a potential military offensive on ISIL in the area, but gave no timeline or further details.

Expelling the extremists would give the regime full control of the capital for the first time since 2012.

Once a thriving district home to some 160,000 Syrians and Palestinians, Yarmuk has been devastated since late 2012.

Clashes broke out that year between regime forces and rebels in the camp, causing thousands of people to flee.

Since 2015, ISIL has controlled the large majority of Yarmuk, while Syria's then Al Qaeda affiliate controlled other parts.

In the past two weeks, former Al Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir Al Sham fighters have left Yarmuk under a negotiated withdrawal, but hundreds of ISIL fighters remain, the Observatory says.

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Three of these negotiated pull-outs have recently seen tens of thousands of rebels and civilians leave Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus that was once a key opposition stronghold.

Brokered by regime backer Russia, the agreements have come after a blistering air and land assault launched by government troops on February 18.

But Syrian state media and the Observatory said on Thursday that evacuations had been suspended.

State news agency SANA says the suspension is the result of disagreements within Jaish Al Islam rebel group, adding that buses that entered Douma for the evacuations on Thursday returned without passengers.

Hundreds of fighters and civilians have left Douma in recent days, bound for areas in northern Syria controlled by Turkey-backed opposition fighters.

The Observatory for Human Rights said the suspension was triggered by measures taken by Turkish troops in areas where opposition fighters are arriving.

Government forces waged a massive offensive in the suburbs of Damascus in Eastern Ghouta in February and March. Douma is the last town in eastern Ghouta under rebel control.

Late Wednesday, 635 people - Jaish Al Islam rebel fighters and members of their families - left Ghouta's main town of Douma for the northern rebel-held town of Jarabulus, SANA said.

With Russia's backing, President Bashar Al Assad's regime has regained large parts of Syria that it had lost to rebels and extremists in the seven-year war.