BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian government forces took back control of an area near Damascus that provides most of the capital’s water supplies after reaching a deal for rebel fighters to withdraw, pro-government media and a monitoring group said.
The Syrian army and its allies launched an offensive last month to drive insurgents from the Wadi Barada valley, which they have controlled since 2012, and to recapture a major spring and pumping station.
Syria’s mainstream rebel factions are under intense pressure after losing areas they held in the northern city of Aleppo to government forces at the end of last year, and now face a fierce assault by Islamist militants elsewhere.
Wadi Barada, which lies northwest of Damascus, has become one of the fiercest battlefronts in Syria’s civil war. Disruption to water supplies, including infrastructure damage, has caused acute shortages in the capital this month.
Government forces entered the village of Ain al-Fija, where the spring and pumping station are located, early on Saturday, a military media unit run by Lebanese group Hezbollah, an ally of Damascus, reported.
“The Syrian army has entered Ain al-Fija ... and raised the Syrian flag over the spring installation,” a statement by the unit said, adding that the development was due to a deal reached with insurgents by which the rebels would leave the area.
Teams were preparing to enter Ain al-Fija to fix the pumping station and the army had secured control of the village, it added.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitoring group, said government forces had begun moving into the spring area as rebel fighters withdrew.
Under the deal reached between the government side and local representatives, rebels hailing from outside the Wadi Barada area would leave for the northwestern province of Idlib, an insurgent stronghold, carrying light weapons, the Observatory said.
Rebels from Wadi Barada would be allowed to leave too, but could also opt to stay and serve with pro-government forces, it added.
The Syrian government has struck similar local ceasefire deals with the opposition in several western parts of the country, usually involving the transfer of rebel fighters and their families to Idlib.
The opposition has said the process amounts to forced population transfer.
Intense fighting raged for weeks in Wadi Barada, and knocked the water spring out of service in late December.
The United Nations has said “infrastructure was deliberately targeted”, without saying who was responsible, leaving four million people in Damascus without safe drinking water. It warned the shortages could lead to outbreaks of waterborne disease.
Rebels and activists have said government bombardment damaged the spring. The government said insurgent groups polluted it with diesel, forcing the state to cut supplies.
Rebels in Wadi Barada had been allowing government engineers to maintain and operate the valley’s pumping station. Fighters have, however, cut water supplies several times in the past to put pressure on the army not to overrun the area.
Reporting by John Davison and Kinda Makieh in Damascus; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Helen Popper