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Russia Says 41,000 Rebels Evacuated From Eastern Ghouta


Children carry a chair in the street as people gather belongings in preparation for evacuation from eastern Ghouta.

More than 41,000 rebels and their family members have left eastern Ghouta as Syrian government forces and their allies consolidate power in the region, a Russian general has said.

Major General Yuri Yevtushenko said on March 31 that members of the Faylaq al-Rahman group departed the settlements of Erbin, Jobar, Ein Tarma, and Zamalka, escorted by Syrian security services, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, and Russian military police officers.

Russian state-run TASS news agency quoted Yevtushenko as saying he hoped the operation to evacuate the Faylaq al-Rahman fighters and families would persuade the largest rebel group, Jaish al-Islam, to lay down their arms and leave for rebel-held territory in northwest Syria.

The remnants of antigovernment rebels remained in their last patches of territory in eastern Ghouta, as Russian and Syrian military officials report that Syrian government forces and their allies have taken more than 90 percent of the formerly rebel-held region.

The military offensive, which involved weeks of intense bombardment, has left more than 1,600 civilians dead and thousands more wounded since February 18, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Russian military officials on March 31 said they had reached a deal to evacuate the wounded from Douma, northeast of the capital, Damascus.

The agreement was reached by the negotiating committee made up of civic leaders and representatives of Jaish al-Islam, which still controls much of Douma.

The committee has been seeking to save Douma from a bloody military offensive by the Syrian Army and its allies who surround it. They have vowed to assault the city if the rebels did not agree to surrender their remaining territory in the enclave in return for safe passage to northwestern Syria.

Meanwhile, Turkey warned France on March 31 against increasing its military presence in Syria after French President Emmanuel Macron two days earlier met with an alliance of Arab-Kurdish fighters.

Kurdish officials said after the March 29 meeting that Paris was planning to send new troops to Manbij -- a northern Syrian town held by the Kurdish YPG militia, a claim the French have denied.

"If France takes any steps regarding its military presence in northern Syria, this would be an illegitimate step that would go against international law and in fact, it would be an invasion," Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli said on March 31.

"Especially if they intend to support terror group elements or give direct or indirect protection with armed forces, this would be a really calamitous step," he added.

Turkey itself on January 20 launched a ground and air operation against the Afrin enclave in northwest Syria controlled by the U.S.-backed Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance, disregarding U.S. warnings that such a move could destabilize the region further.

Turkey said air strikes targeting the enclave were aimed at eliminating "elements" of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia in Syria and Islamic State (IS) militants.

Ankara considers the YPG to be a terrorist organization and is angry that Washington is allied with the Kurdish YPG forces that have been fighting against IS militants in Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on March 30 criticized France's "wrong stance" and rejected Macron's offer of bringing Ankara and the SDF together in talks.

"We have no need for mediation," Erdogan said. "You can sit down at the table with terror organizations, but Turkey will continue its fight against terror," Erdogan said.

With reporting by AFP, AP, and TASS
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