Thousands of rebels and civilians evacuate Syria's Ghouta
More than 5,000 Syrian rebels and civilians began leaving a ravaged pocket of Eastern Ghouta on Sunday, in fresh evacuations that further emptied the former rebel bastion.
Five weeks since the Syrian regime launched an all-out assault on Ghouta, it holds more than 90 percent of the onetime opposition stronghold on the edge of Damascus.
To help it capture the rest, key backer Russia has held talks with various rebel groups to negotiate withdrawals from the three remaining pockets.
One area was emptied in recent days under such a deal and evacuations began late Saturday for a second part, held by the Islamist Faylaq al-Rahman rebel faction.
That agreement is set to see some 7,000 rebels and civilians bussed from the towns of Arbin and Zamalka and the district of Jobar to the rebel-dominated province of Idlib in northwestern Syria.
Around 980 of them quit Ghouta late Saturday, travelling overnight to northwest Syria.
On Sunday, 5,247 fighters, relatives, and other civilians boarded 77 buses to leave Ghouta, state news agency SANA said.
An AFP correspondent saw some buses exiting rebel territory and driving onto the nearby highway on Sunday afternoon, but they were delayed there for several hours as they waited for the full convoy to gather.
They were searched by Syrian troops, who checked fighters were leaving with light weapons only, before Russian military personnel boarded each bus.
But by nightfall, they were still paused at the highway.
Once the convoy moves, it will mark the largest single day of evacuations yet for Eastern Ghouta.
Talks are also underway for a deal over the third and final pocket of Ghouta, which includes the region's largest town, Douma.
'Destroyed my future'
Residents of Arbin, Zamalka, and Jobar had been bidding tearful farewells to their hometowns all morning, dragging shabby suitcases past bombed-out buildings.
"I'm a civilian and never carried weapons - I was forced to leave my hometown because of the intense bombing," said Abu Yazan, an evacuee in his twenties.
Hamza Abbas, an opposition activist in Zamalka, told AFP they did not have much to look forward to in Idlib.
"They have no money, no houses, no furniture or even clothes to take with them because of this bombardment," he told AFP.
As part of Faylaq al-Rahman's deal with Moscow, residents had been offered the option to stay in Ghouta as it fell to the regime, but Abbas declined.
"I decided to leave Ghouta because how am I supposed to live alongside someone who killed my family, my siblings, my friends? With someone who destroyed me, my life, and my future?"
Since it began on February 18, the Ghouta assault has left more than 1,600 civilians dead, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Even before the onslaught, the enclave's 400,000 residents had suffered for half a decade under a crippling regime siege that severely limited access to food, medicine and other basic goods.
The Syrian government has used siege tactics followed by heavy bombardment and negotiated settlements to recapture swathes territory lost to rebels.
Damascus and Moscow have applied this "leave or die" strategy to Ghouta as well, smashing the enclave into three isolated pockets before seeking separate evacuation deals for each.
The first Russian-brokered agreement saw hardline Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham agree to quit the town of Harasta.
More than 4,500 people, including over 1,400 fighters, left Harasta for Idlib on Thursday and Friday.
'Stay in Douma'
The second agreement, reached with Faylaq al-Rahman on Friday, provides for evacuations as well as medical treatment for wounded civilians and fighters and the release of rebel-held detainees.
People began leaving Faylaq-controlled territory Saturday and drove all night to Qalaat al-Madiq, a crossing point into rebel-held territory frequently used in such agreements.
An AFP correspondent at the transfer point in the central Hama province saw 17 buses and ambulances arrive early Sunday with the first wave of evacuees, who would then head to Idlib.
Tens of thousands of people bussed out of opposition territory have been brought to Idlib in recent years under "reconciliation" deals like those negotiated in Ghouta.
A third set of talks, over Douma, may not result in an evacuation deal, said Jaish al-Islam spokesman Hamza Bayraqdar late Sunday.
"The ongoing negotiations with Russia are to stay in Douma, not to leave it," said Bayraqdar, without providing additional details.
Analyst Nawar Oliver told AFP the talks over Douma were more likely to result in "an equitable agreement" for its rebels that did not involve evacuation.
The deal could "involve turning Jaish al-Islam to a local force, the return of regime institutions and services like electricity and water to Douma, without a government security presence," he said.
Syria's conflict erupted in March 2011 with anti-government protests, but has since evolved into a complex and devastating civil war.