BEIRUT (Reuters) - Hundreds of Syrian rebels and their families left a besieged Damascus suburb on Friday, the second group to do so as part of a local evacuation agreement with the government, state media and a war monitor reported.
State news agency SANA said 1,246 people, of whom 718 were militants, left the Barzeh and neighbouring Tishreen districts which lie northeast of Damascus and near the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta pocket of towns and farms which has been blockaded by government forces since 2013.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitoring group, said about 700 people left on Friday, including about 150 fighters.
The first batch of evacuations from Barzeh happened on Monday.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has promoted the use of such evacuations, along with what his government calls “reconciliation” deals for rebel-held areas that surrender to the government, as a way of reducing bloodshed in the six-year-old civil war.
However, the United Nations has criticised both the use of siege tactics which precede such deals and the evacuations themselves as amounting to forcible displacement.
Assad’s government has been steadily defeating pockets of armed rebellion near the capital, with the help of Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias.
It ultimately aims to seize east Ghouta, pushing fighters to accept state rule or leave for rebel territory in the north.
The army assault entered a higher gear in recent months in Barzeh and Qaboun, ending a local truce that had been in place with rebels there since 2014 and shutting access to a network of underground tunnels which supplied besieged east Ghouta, causing supplies to dwindle and prices to rocket.
An evacuation deal has not yet been reached for Qaboun, the Observatory said.
Reporting by Lisa Barrington, Editing by Angus MacSwan