In Ghouta Evacuation stalls over differences among Syria rebels

Evacuations of rebels and civilians from the last opposition pocket in Syria's Eastern Ghouta stalled on Thursday as divisions continued within the Islamist faction that holds the area, state media said.

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Relatives of Syrians believed to be held by rebels wait on the Syrian government-held side of the Wafideen checkpoint on April 5, 2018, as evacuations of the last rebel-held pocket of the former opposition bastion stall play

Relatives of Syrians believed to be held by rebels wait on the Syrian government-held side of the Wafideen checkpoint on April 5, 2018, as evacuations of the last rebel-held pocket of the former opposition bastion stall

(AFP)
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Evacuations of rebels and civilians from the last opposition pocket in Syria's Eastern Ghouta stalled on Thursday as divisions continued within the Islamist faction that holds the area, state media said.

A convoy of 20 buses organised by the government had entered the former rebel bastion's main town of Douma to prepare for a fourth day of evacuations but later pulled back to the town's outskirts, an AFP correspondent said.

Syria's state news agency SANA said the buses left Douma due to "differences between" rebels and "in order to let them sort out by themselves these differences".

Evacuations of Jaish al-Islam fighters and their families from Douma started Monday under a Russia-brokered deal, with around 4,000 leaving the town.

SANA said that despite Thursday's delay the deal itself "is not over".

Jaish al-Islam has not yet confirmed the accord, amid reports hardliners within the group were refusing to leave their positions.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor based in Britain, said negotiations were under way to revise the deal.

"The old deal has been suspended and negotiations are under way between the Russians and Jaish al-Islam in order to reach a new one," Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

He said Jaish al-Islam has 10,000 fighters and "more than 4,000 of them categorically refuse to leave".

At the regime-held Wafideen checkpoint, the delayed evacuation came as a huge disappointment for families who were hoping to reunite with relatives who they say were being held by the rebels.

"I have been coming here for the past three days hoping to see my daughter and her husband who were kidnapped five years ago. But I am beginning to lose hope," said Najah Ali.

The 60-year-old woman told AFP she has been looking after her daughter's three children, awaiting their return.

Douma residents, meanwhile, said they were living in limbo.

"Nothing is clear. We are waiting for the negotiations to end. Some people want to go but others want to stay," one of the residents said on condition of anonymity.

The Russian-brokered deal was the latest in a string of accords that have seen tens of thousands of people -- rebels and civilians -- leave Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus for the north of the country.

Russia-backed regime forces have retaken control of 95 percent of Eastern Ghouta since February 18 through a combination of a deadly air and ground assault and evacuation deals.

The regime assault has killed more than 1,600 civilians and caused tens of thousands to flee into regime-held territory.

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