Thousands of Syrian fighters and their relatives will be evacuated from Harasta, a besieged town in Eastern Ghouta, to an opposition-held province in northern Syria, state media and a rebel group have said.
The Russian-brokered deal was reached on Wednesday after a meeting between a Syrian government delegation and representatives of residents and fighters in rebel-held Harasta.
“Evacuation for families who want to leave will begin tomorrow at 7am (05:00 GMT),” Munther Fares, spokesperson for the Ahrar al-Sham group, which holds Harasta, said in a statement on Wednesday.
“Gunmen and civilians who choose to leave will have Russian guarantees.”
Addounia TV, a state-run outlet, said that 1,500 gunmen and 6,000 family members would be evacuated on Thursday in two groups to Idlib.
Harasta is home to 20,000 people.
“Families who want to stay [in Harasta] will be given guarantees by the Syrian government and the Russians that no harm will come to them, and that the city will not be subjected to displacement or demographic change,” Fares said.
He added that civilians inside and outside Harasta would form a committee to follow up the affairs of those remaining in the city and prisoners.
A member of the Harasta Council confirmed the news to Al Jazeera, saying the evacuation includes gunmen and civilians, including people needing medical assistance.
‘Anything can happen’
The evacuation deal marks the first time opposition fighters have been able to leave rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, which has been subjected to an aerial offensive carried out by Syrian government forces and Russian fighter jets for more than a month.
However, Tayyim al-Siyoufi, a Harasta-based activist, told Al Jazeera that although the agreement has been reached, it remains to be seen whether it will be upheld in time for the scheduled evacuation.
“Anything can happen,” he said. “We are in a worse position than other towns in Ghouta … we’ll see if the deal goes through or not.”
With Harasta occupying just two square kilometres, al-Siyoufi said civilians are feeling the brunt of the air attacks more intensely.
“Every day there are 20 warplanes hovering above us that fire around 200 shellings,” he said.
‘Overwhelming’ situation for displaced Ghouta residents
The Syrian army has now recaptured 80 percent of Eastern Ghouta, which lies on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus, and was once its breadbasket.
According to the White Helmets, a voluntary group operating in parts of rebel-controlled Syria, at least 1,252 documented civilians have been killed in the offensive.
More than 4,000 people have been wounded, with 2,990 air raids targeting the region.
Tens of thousands of civilians have fled Eastern Ghouta, which used to have a population of around 400,000.
Ingy Sedky, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Damascus, said that there are at least four shelters accommodating those who escaped the region: Herjellah, Dweir, Maahad al-Kahraba and Nashabeyah.
“According to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), they are now responding to the needs of more than 25,000 people,” Sedky told Al Jazeera. “But it is very hard to know how many people have already left since they keep coming and moving constantly.”
SARC has been providing bread packs for 15,000 people, Sedky said.
“We provided canned food parcels that should be enough for 20,000 people for a month, as well as hygiene kits and daily essentials like mattresses, blankets, solar lamps to 15,000 people.”
Yet the situation, she continued, is “overwhelming”.
“Many of the people came with only the clothes they were wearing,” she said. “In each shelter we visit, you could see a huge number of people queuing in front of the SARC mobile clinics, many in very poor health condition due to years spent without proper access to medical care. The journey was especially hard for the elderly and those with limited mobility.”
“It is extremely challenging for all humanitarian actors to cover all the needs as thousands of people keep coming every day [at least till yesterday] but we are doing all we can to cope with the current influx.”