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.


Algeria deports nearly 400 migrants back to Niger

Updated 49 min 3 sec ago
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Algeria deports nearly 400 migrants back to Niger

  • The IOM and EU are intensifying efforts to return African migrants home
  • 391 migrants from 16 west and central African countries had arrived in Assamaka

NIAMEY: Algeria has deported nearly 400 African migrants trying to reach Europe, sending them back over the Sahara desert into neighboring Niger, the UN migration agency (IOM) and Niger said on Sunday.
The IOM and European Union are intensifying efforts to return African migrants home, after thousands have died making the dangerous crossing to Europe across the Mediterranean in overcrowded boats. Many get stuck before ever reaching Africa’s northern coast, either in Libya, where they suffer slavery and abuse at the hands of militias, or Algeria.
IOM operations officer Livia Manente told Reuters in an email that the group of 391 migrants from 16 west and central African countries had arrived in the Nigerien town of Assamaka on Friday on about 20-30 vehicles, after being stopped while heading to work in various Algerian cities.
“They claim their phones were confiscated and that conditions were poor — not much food and water, crowded rooms),” she said. “They were transported in trucks after the locality of In Guezzam and then obliged to walk across the border ... including families with pregnant women and children.”
Aboubacar Ajouel, the mayor of Agadez, the last destination for the migrants, confirmed that they had arrived.
Algeria declined to confirm this particular deportation, but said that 20,000 migrants had been prevented from reaching Europe by Algerian authorities since January, thanks to security measures put in place at its borders with Mali and Niger.
“We have no choice but to prevent them,” Hassen Kacimi, director of Algeria’s interior ministry in charge of migration, told Reuters by telephone.