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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Syrians held by Al Qaeda faction freed as part of deal with regime

Dozens held by the insurgents have left rebel-controlled Idlib

A soldier loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al Assad talks to a woman in a bus after they were released by militants from Idlib, Syria May 1, 2018. SANA / Handout via Reuters
A soldier loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al Assad talks to a woman in a bus after they were released by militants from Idlib, Syria May 1, 2018. SANA / Handout via Reuters

Dozens of Syrians held by Al Qaeda-linked insurgents were released on Tuesday as part of a deal to hand over areas around Damascus back into regime control.

State media broadcasted images of women and children arriving by bus at a government-controlled checkpoint.

The 42 Syrians, held by the insurgents in a village in rural Idlib as they swept into the province since 2015, are the first batch of more than 80 people to be released.

According to the deal, fighters linked to Al Qaeda will evacuate from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus while about 5,000 people in two northwestern villages besieged by rebel fighters will be allowed to move to government-held areas.

The Yarmouk evacuation deal is the latest agreement in areas around the Syrian capital that have come under intense regime bombardment as President Bashar Al Assad's military and its allies push to crush the last insurgent strongholds.

However, the deal does not include full government control over Yarmouk camp, where Mr Al Assad is bidding to strengthen his hold over the city, and the fall of Hajar Al Awsad, ISIS’s last remaining stronghold in the Syrian capital after it entered Yarmouk camp in 2015, would be a significant strategic victory for the Syrian dictator.

The United Nations has repeatedly warned of "catastrophic consequences" of the fighting affecting the civilians trapped inside the camp.

Established in 1952, Yarmouk camp has turned into a densely populated area where nearly 150,000 registered Palestinian refugees lived before Syria's conflict in 2011.

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Abdullah Al Khateeb, a human rights activist in the Yalda neighborhood of Damascus that lies less than two kilometers from Yarmouk camp, told The National that evacuations of the suburb will start on Wednesday.

"The evacuations will go on for four days, the operation will see the evacuation of 5,000 people – they will head towards Jarablus, Idlib and possibly De'arra. The evacuation will be monitored by Russian police," Mr Al Khateeb said.

The deal came on the same day that the US-led coalition and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced that they had relaunched their battle to capture the last ISIS territory in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor.

The coalition of Kurdish and Arab militias said they had paused the fight against the insurgents after Turkey launched an assault in January against their northern region of Afrin.

US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement: "The fighting will be difficult, but we and our partners will prevail. The days of ISIS controlling territory and terrorizing the people of Syria are coming to an end".

An additional deal is expected to take place in coming days, which will foresee the evacuation of three other suburbs south of Damascus.

Syria's state television, Al Ikhbariya, reported that approximately 20 wounded Syrians from the besieged villages of Foua and Kefraya were evacuated on Tuesday. But the evacuation of more than 1,000 residents of the villages stalled amid security concerns.