Saturday 18 August 2018

Isil evacuates enclave as Assad moves to reclaim Syrian capital

Soldiers loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad near Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus last month. Photo: Omar Sanadiki/Reuters
Soldiers loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad near Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus last month. Photo: Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

Sara Elizabeth Williams

Jihadist fighters yesterday started evacuating the Yarmouk camp area in southern Damascus, a key step towards the Syrian government retaking total control of the capital. Fighters from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) and their families left the Zahra area adjacent to the camp, which they had controlled since April 2015, on buses early yesterday morning.

According to activists, six buses, each with seats for 50 people, left the area. The Syrian Observatory for -Human Rights said the buses headed towards the Syrian Badia, a stretch of desert east of Damascus that extends to the border with Jordan and Iraq.

The Syrian government denied making any sort of deal with Isil and said the army was fighting the last of the insurgents. As of yesterday afternoon, anti-government activists also said fighting was ongoing.

Pro-government media described the development in Yarmouk as a surrender - a term it has used throughout the conflict to describe the sort of negotiated withdrawals that follow siege, bombardment and an exit of fighters on government buses.

Syrian government forces, backed by their Russian allies, began their offensive on Yarmouk a month ago. According to the observatory, 56 civilians have been killed since the offensive began. A truce was reportedly reached late on Friday or early Saturday, giving militants 24 hours to leave.

Photographs and videos from inside the camp revealed a scene of devastation reminiscent of eastern Aleppo after the government's lengthy assault there.

Yarmouk, in the southern part of the Syrian capital, housed about 160,000 Palestinian refugees before the war began. In December 2012, anti-government forces, including the Free Syrian Army and local Palestinians, seized control. Close to 140,000 people fled during subsequent clashes.

According to the United Nations -Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), which supports Palestinians, just 18,000 people remained in Yarmouk in July 2013 when government troops choked the camp in a siege. Isil fighters swept into Yarmouk in April 2015, seizing up to 95pc of the camp.

Until recently, they controlled an area that was home to around 3,000 people. For Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, the ousting of Isil from Yarmouk is a crucial marker on the road to his aim to reclaim "every inch" of Syria.

The capture of Yarmouk would bring the entire capital under Assad's control for the first time since the civil conflict began in 2011.

Mr Assad last week met Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, in Sochi. Mr Putin had said that he expected foreign forces to withdraw from Syria soon, in conjunction with the political process moving forward.

Irish Independent

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