Small groups of Islamist militants have begun to evacuate the besieged Syrian rebel enclave of eastern Ghouta after negotiations with the United Nations.
Syrian state TV late on March 9 showed a video of about a dozen fighters and their families arriving at the Al-Wafideen crossing point into government territory and then boarding a bus.
The Jaish al-Islam, the largest of several militant groups in eastern Ghouta, issued a statement saying that fighters from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a smaller militant group, were being evacuated to the northern province of Idlib. HTS is composed mainly of members from the Al-Qaeda affiliate formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front.
Jaish al-Islam said the decision to evacuate fighters had been made in consultation with the UN, several unidentified international parties, and civil leaders from eastern Ghouta.
Jaish al-Islam has been fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the nearly seven-year civil war in Syria.
If insurgents do, in fact, leave the enclave, it could bring an end to days of bloody violence in the region.
Over the past two weeks, the Syrian Army, backed by artillery fire and air strikes, has retaken about half the territory formerly held by rebels in the assault on eastern Ghouta.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres have estimated that 940-1,000 civilians have been killed in the assault.
Earlier on March 9, a United Nations official in Syria said an emergency aid convoy was shelled in the rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta "despite assurances of safety from parties including the Russian Federation."
UN resident coordinator Ali al-Za'tari said on March 9 that "shelling in proximity of Douma, eastern Ghouta, today is putting the...convoy at risk."
The comments came after a 13-truck Red Cross and Red Crescent convoy delivering aid to the besieged enclave was put into danger from the shelling shortly after crossing front lines amid a sustained offensive by Syrian government troops.
No injuries were reported, and officials later said the convoy had safely left the region after unloading aid supplies for some 12,000 people in Douma.
Syria and its main backer, Russia, claim the offensive is designed to stop the rebels from shelling nearby Damascus and to drive Islamist insurgents out of eastern Ghouta.
The offensive has been severely criticized by the UN, the United States, and others.
UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein has said the assault was "legally, and morally, unsustainable."
Russia has given Assad's government crucial support throughout the Syrian conflict, which began with a government crackdown on peaceful protests in 2011.
The UN says 400,000 people live in rebel-held areas of eastern Ghouta. The Syrians and Russia's military claimed to have opened safe routes to allow civilians to leave, but few if any were thought to have left before the reported departures on March 9.
Moscow helped turn the tide of the conflict in Assad's favor by launching a campaign of air strikes in 2015 and by stepping up its military presence on the ground.
But it has suffered losses, and on March 7, Jaish al-Islam claimed its fighters shot down a military plane that crashed and killed dozens of Russian military personnel earlier in the week.
Meanwhile, in a separate offensive in Syria’s northwest, Turkey said its troops and allied opposition fighters have surrounded the key city of Afrin in a Syrian Kurdish-held enclave and are on the verge of entering it.
Turkey on January 19 began an air-and-land military campaign in the Kurdish-controlled Afrin enclave, vowing to clear it of the U.S-backed Syrian Kurdish militia known as the People's Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers to be a terrorist group.