BEIRUT – Syrian state media said Monday that the largest rebel group in the suburbs of Damascus has begun evacuating its last stronghold after seven years of war, but the rebels refused to say whether they had surrendered, and it was unclear who was on board a dozen buses seen leaving the town.
Residents trapped inside Douma expressed fear that further foot-dragging could provoke another major government offensive, like the one that killed an estimated 1,600 people across the eastern Ghouta suburbs in February and March.
"We don't know what our choices are, we don't know what's in store for us," said local media activist Haitham Bakkar.
Douma was one of the earliest hubs of the Arab Spring uprising against President Bashar Assad that swept through the country in 2011. Just 11 kilometers (7 miles) from the Old City of Damascus, it was part of the capital's Ghouta hinterland, once famed for its orchards and produce. The government responded to the protests by putting Douma and other suburbs around Damascus under siege, bombing hospitals and residential areas, and blocking the entry of food and medical relief.
On Monday, more than 600 people evacuated the town on buses sent by the government and the Syrian Red Crescent to take them to Jarablus, a northern Syrian town controlled by Turkish troops and allied Syrian forces.
State media said those on board were fighters and family members belonging to the Army of Islam, the largest rebel group in eastern Ghouta. The Saudi-backed group, which has deep roots in the region, has held firm in recent weeks as virtually all the other insurgents of eastern Ghouta have reached deals to relocate to the rebel-held north.
The Russian military, which is allied with Assad's forces, said 1,146 rebels and their relatives have left Douma for the northern province of Idlib over the past 24 hours. Maj. Gen. Yuri Yevtushenko, of the Russian military's Reconciliation Center in Syria, said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies that more than 30,000 people have left Douma since Wednesday.
The Army of Islam has refused to respond to media requests for comment. Syrian activists say the group has told them it is determined to remain in Douma. The group is estimated to command 10,000 fighters in the town, and possess a formidable arsenal of tanks and other heavy weaponry, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the civil war through a network of activists on the ground.
Observatory head Rami Abdurrahman said the Army of Islam is divided over whether to evacuate Douma, with hard-liners demanding they stay and fight.
He said the buses leaving Douma on Monday were transporting wounded fighters as a first step in the evacuations. Bakkar, the media activist, said the evacuees were wounded civilians. Douma local council member Iyad Abdelaziz said the buses were for medical evacuations and "humanitarian cases."
The Army of Islam ruled Douma with an iron fist, and embodied a more conservative and intolerant vision for Syria than the one promoted by the civil uprising of 2011. It has been accused of abducting human rights activists and committing abuses as it crushed rival groups. Its power largely derived from Saudi aid and its control of an extensive smuggling network in eastern Ghouta.
In the spring of 2015, it held a massive military parade that included thousands of opposition fighters marching in formation and a striking display of tanks and armored vehicles at the doors of the Syrian capital.
As government forces have steadily reclaimed towns and villages in eastern Ghouta, they have given rebels and men of fighting age the choice of accepting amnesty and serving in the Syrian military, or relocating to rebel-held areas in northern Syria. More than 40,000 rebels and their family members have chosen to relocate, according to the Russian military.
Russia is a key backer of Assad and supported the latest government offensive. More than 120,000 people fled their homes under the five-week assault, seeking safety behind government lines, according to the Russian military.
Local activists say over 100,000 civilians are trapped inside Douma, which has suffered catastrophic damage.
On Sunday, the Syrian government-linked Central Military Media outlet said that once the evacuations are completed, a local council for Douma would be formed with the approval of the central government.
It said Russia, Iran, and Turkey — which have negotiated local settlements in different parts of Syria — would oversee the handover of prisoners held by the Army of Islam to the government. Iran has backed Assad throughout the civil war, while Turkey has cast itself as a sponsor of the opposition, along with the Arab Gulf countries.
The government was not party to the negotiations over Douma, which were conducted between Russia and the Army of Islam. Ahmad Ramadan, an opposition figure, revealed on Sunday that Turkey was party to the talks as well.
"If there is an agreement, the Russian military police will enter and be a buffer force between us and the government," said Abdelaziz, the local council member.
Turkey, with the support of allied Syrian opposition forces, is carrying out its own military operations in northern Syria, against a U.S.-allied Kurdish militia.
Abu Ali Nejm, a commander in the Kurdish-held town of Manbij, said reports of the relocation of the Army of Islam to the nearby town of Jarablus were troubling.
"For sure this is not in our interest," he said in a series of messages. "But there are currently reinforcements from the coalition forces and things are now ok. " He said U.S.-led forces have increased their presence along the front line opposite the Turkey-led forces.
Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Qamishli, Syria contributed to this report.