Syrian rebels reach evacuation deal in Eastern Ghouta town, opposition sources say

Above, a man who fled eastern Ghouta gestures as he receives aid at a shelter in Adra, near Damascus. The Syrian army and allied forces have recaptured 70 percent of the territory that was under insurgent control. (Reuters)
Updated 21 March 2018
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Syrian rebels reach evacuation deal in Eastern Ghouta town, opposition sources say

AMMAN: A Russian-brokered deal has been reached to evacuate a Syrian rebel group from a town in Eastern Ghouta to opposition-held northwestern Syria in the first such deal in the last remaining rebel bastion near the capital, two opposition sources said on Wednesday.
Fighters from the Ahrar Al-Sham rebel group in control of the besieged town of Harasta had agreed to lay down their arms in return for safe passage to insurgent-controlled areas and an offer to be pardoned under local reconciliation terms with the authorities for those who want to stay, the sources said.
There was however no indication when the deal would be implemented and one source familiar with the talks said obstacles may delay it for a few days.
The Syrian army and allied forces have recaptured 70 percent of the territory that was under insurgent control in the enclave and after weeks of bombardment residents are fleeing by the thousands.
The relentless Syrian army assault backed by Russian air power that began last month has killed hundreds of people as relentless airstrikes pounded residential areas where thousands had sheltered in basements across the densely populated enclave, according to rescuers and a monitor.
The evacuation deals come after years of siege and bombardment that have been a major strategy by the Syrian army to force rebels to surrender and help Syrian President Bashar Assad recover all of Aleppo, Homs and other areas.
“The deal has been finalized and it could come into effect soon after a cease-fire is announced as early as Wednesday,” said one official familiar with the talks that have been going on for several days.
It would begin with an evacuation of injured civilians, he added, saying the remaining civilians in the town were “facing untold suffering.”
A local official in the opposition-run Harasta council was quoted by opposition news outlets that a deal had been reached but did not say when it was expected to be implemented.
Last year, rebels launched a major offensive on army barracks on the edge of Harasta that led to retaliatory attacks. The battles were among the fiercest in Eastern Ghouta in recent years.
Assad has vowed to end what he portrays as a terrorist threat in close proximity to his seat of power.
On Tuesday, a rocket fell on a popular residential area across the rebel-held enclave killing at least 40 people, according to medics in government-controlled areas.
The Syrian authorities accused rebels of firing the rockets in revenge attacks which rebels deny.
Over 100 civilians were killed in the last two days of air strikes in Eastern Ghouta with most of the raids on Douma city, the largest population center with more than 150,000 people still living there.
Rebels and residents say napalm and incendiary weapons were dropped on several civilian areas to force rebels to surrender.
The predicament of hundreds of rebels trapped in Harasta, one of the main towns in Eastern Ghouta, worsened after the army succeeded earlier this month in splintering Ghouta into three besieged zones, cutting off Harasta from other areas.
Last Sunday, the Syrian army had given the rebels of Harasta area an ultimatum to withdraw, state media said.
Residents and rescuers say the Russian airforce stepped up its bombing of Harasta town as talks were going on to broker the deal.
The Harasta deal will pile pressure on the two main rebel groups — Failaq Al-Rahman in the southern pocket and Jaish Al-Islam in the northern enclave — to also reach understandings.
They have however publicly said they reject Russia’s offer to leave the enclave.
The most likely option was however the transfer of Failaq Al-Rahman and Jaish Al-Islam fighters to opposition-held areas in northern and southern Syria respectively, a rebel official familiar with the situation on the ground said.
The defeat in Eastern Ghouta would mark the worst setback for the anti-Assad rebellion since the opposition was driven from eastern Aleppo in late 2016 after a similar campaign of siege, bombing, ground assaults and the promise of safe passage out.


Gaza field hospitals prepare for another day of bloodshed

Updated 19 April 2018
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Gaza field hospitals prepare for another day of bloodshed

  • At least 33 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since the ‘Great March of Return’ began last month
  • Gaza suffers from a lack of medical facilities and supplies as a result of an 11-year land, sea and air blockade by Israeli forces

GAZA: A tent consisting of nine beds and some basic medical equipment is all that will serve as a field hospital in the Zeitoun area of Gaza when Palestinians gather at the Israeli border to take part in a mass protest against the occupation on Friday.

Eleven doctors and 12 nurses work at the facility during what has become a weekly ritual of defiance and bloodshed for the people of this besieged coastal enclave. With access to only rudimentary supplies, the staff must deal with injuries caused by live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas.

When Arab News visited the hospital southeast of Gaza City last week the sound of ambulances rushing back and forth was almost non-stop as the medics worked tirelessly amid the chaos. But no one expects any respite in the month ahead, with the protesters due to return every Friday until mid-May.

“In one hour we have received more than 30 injuries, about 26 of which are to the lower limbs and from live bullets,” said Khalil Siam, a doctor who works at the hospital from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m.

Gaza’s “Great March of Return” began on March 30, when tens of thousands of protesters traveled in buses from across the strip to five locations along the Israeli border. 

The demonstration was timed to coincide with “Land Day,” an annual event when Palestinians remember the deaths of six Arab citizens killed by Israeli forces during demonstrations over land confiscations in northern Israel in 1976. It is due to continue until May 15, when Palestinians commemorate the Nakba, or catastrophe — the creation of
Israel.

On the first day of the protest at least 17 Palestinians were killed and more than 1,000 were injured as Israeli troops opened fire on the huge crowds, causing the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to call for “an independent and transparent investigation.”

Then on April 6 several more Palestinians were killed as protesters threw stones and set fire to piles of tires at the border, sending thick clouds of black smoke spiralling into the air.

A handful of field hospitals run by both volunteers and government doctors have been set up to deal with the constant stream of casualties each Friday, but they struggle to cope. Protesters critically wounded in the upper part of the body are rushed straight to Gaza’s main hospitals but staff here also find themselves increasingly overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the bloodshed.

According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, a total of 33 Palestinians have been killed and 4,300 have been injured between the start of the protests last month and April 14. Thirteen of the casualties have required amputations.

Even before the demonstrations began, Gaza suffered from a lack of medical facilities and supplies as a result of an 11-year land, sea and air blockade by Israeli forces and ongoing divisions between the two main Palestinian political factions, Fatah and Hamas.

Ashraf Al-Qidra, a spokesman for the Ministry of Health in Gaza, told Arab News that all hospitals were facing a situation of “severe attrition.”

“A large number of drugs and medical items have been drained from emergency departments, operating rooms and intensive care units due to the large number of casualties,” he said.

The Israeli government initially refused to allow injured protesters to be moved to the occupied West Bank until Israel’s High Court ruled unanimously on Monday that Yousef Al-Karnaz, a 19-year-old Palestinian, should be allowed to receive urgent medical care in Ramallah.

Al-Karnaz was shot and wounded by Israeli troops on March 30 but was not allowed to leave the strip. As a result, his left leg was amputated.

Ismail Al-Jadbah, director of the vascular department at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, told Arab News that the strip had enough doctors to cope with the casualties but lacked the necessary resources to give them the best possible care.

“In addition to a shortage of medicine, the large number of injured has put a great burden on us. Treating injuries in the right way, and in the right time, is very difficult,” he said.