MOADAMIYEH, Syria – Buses carrying about 300 Syrians living in a besieged rebel-held suburb of the capital, Damascus, began leaving the area Friday following a deal struck with the government that grants amnesty to gunmen and restores state control.
An Associated Press reporter in Moadamiyeh saw security forces searching the luggage of dozens of men, women, and children before they boarded buses Friday, heading out of the suburb to shelters in a government-controlled neighborhood nearby.
Moadamiyeh, which a U.N. report said was gassed with toxic sarin in 2013, has suffered a three-year government siege, leaving its estimated 28,000 residents with dwindling food and medical supplies.
The first part of the deal's implementation evacuates about 300 people, including 62 gunmen who agreed to lay down their arms after taking advantage of a presidential amnesty, said the governor of rural Damascus province, Alaa Munir Ibrahim.
The Moadamiyeh deal came a week after the full evacuation of the nearby rebel-held suburb Daraya, which was widely criticized as a forced displacement.
The 300 people leaving Moadamiyeh are originally from Daraya, a number of whom had fled to or were stuck in Moadamiyeh after an extensive military offensive against the neighboring suburb that began earlier this year. On Syrian state TV, Ahmed Mounir, a government adviser, described the Friday evacuation as a completion of the Daraya deal.
The Daraya offensive cut the suburb off from other rebel-held areas in the western suburbs of Damascus. It accelerated the surrender of the gunmen in Daraya, forcing them to reach a deal with the government which fully evacuated the nearly 4,000 people still living in a neighborhood that was once home to more than 200,000.
"The heroic acts of the Syrian army in Daraya led to the achievement in Moadamiyeh," Ibrahim, the provincial governor, told Syrian state TV. He said other "settlement" deals with rebel-held Damascus suburbs were currently under discussion, and urged other gunmen to lay down their arms.
At a press conference in Geneva on Thursday, U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura warned that the government's siege tactics were forcing evacuations, saying that "after Daraya, we may have other Darayas."
De Mistura's humanitarian adviser, Jan Egeland, echoed his sentiment, saying the U.N. humanitarian task force for Syria had "failed the people of Daraya." The U.N. underlined that it had not been consulted on the Daraya deal, which it described as forced displacement.
Once the 300 evacuees have been moved to government-controlled areas, under the second part of the Moadamiyeh deal gunmen who refuse to hand over their weapons will be forced to leave, likely to rebel-held parts of northern Syria.
It was not clear when government security forces would take over control of the suburb.
Moadamiyeh's buildings and infrastructure appeared largely intact. Local rebels had negotiated several local truces with the government starting 2012, and the suburb was spared much of the destruction and bombing that beset Daraya, a mile away.
"I am very happy to get out," said 25-year old Samira Khadra, a resident of Daraya who had moved to Moadamiyeh, as she boarded one of eight waiting green buses with her mother and children.
Rajab Taysir al-Sheikh, a 55-year old resident of Daraya, said his former home was totally destroyed. He was now joining his family, evacuated last week from Daraya, in a shelter in a Damascus suburb. "Nothing remains from my house except what I am carrying: two pants and some shirts," he said, before criticizing the rebels for provoking the government's violence.
Hassan Ghandour, a former resident of Moadamiyeh and a lead negotiator on the deal, said most gunmen from Moadamiyeh are expected to stay and lay down their weapons. The deal also includes the release of detainees from Moadamiyeh currently held in government prisons.