Besieged residents and rebels began leaving the Damascus suburb of Daraya on Friday, Reuters witnesses said, as an evacuation to end one of the longest stand-offs in Syria’s five-year war began.
Insurgents and government forces agreed a deal on Thursday to evacuate the town, which the Syrian army has surrounded since 2012. The UN said only one shipment of aid has reached the area since then.
A Reuters witness saw six buses leaving the town. Footage on state television showed buses carefully driving past a large group of soldiers through streets lined with rubble.
Peeping from the window of one the vehicles was a small child no older than four or five, too young to remember life before the siege.
A Syrian Army general told reporters in Daraya that around 300 families of fighters would leave the town on Friday, and in total around 700 fighters and 4,000 civilians would be evacuated by Saturday.
The plight of civilians in Daraya and other besieged areas has long been of concern to the United Nations, which has condemned the use of starvation as a weapon by both sides in the conflict.
There have been previous deals to allow similar evacuations of besieged fighters and civilians, or to let people return to their homes after ceasefires were agreed.
In February, around 4,000 people returned to their south Damascus neighbourhood after a ceasefire deal, and in December hundreds of fighters and their families were evacuated from two besieged areas in northern and western Syria.
In June, authorities agreed to allow UN-supplied food deliveries into Daraya under a cessation of hostilities deal, but just one shipment of food aid has reached the town since then.
By this spring, conditions there were so bad that, amid reports of the army burning local wheat fields, some people were reduced to eating grass and sending their children out to beg, the UN’s World Food Programme said.
Daraya, just 7km from President Bashar al Assad’s seat of power, was one of the first places to see peaceful protests against his rule.
The suburb fought off repeated attempts to retake it by government forces as the conflict escalated into civil war. It was also the scene of one of the worst atrocities of the war.
In 2012, several hundred people were killed, including civilians, many execution style, after security forces stormed the suburb after locals took up arms. Both the army and rebels blamed each other.
In recent weeks, the army has escalated its use of barrel and incendiary bombs there. Last week its only hospital was hit, rebels and aid workers said.
Daraya’s local council said in an online statement that civilians will be initially taken to the town of Herjalleh in the Western Ghouta suburbs of Damascus and “will move later to places they choose”.
Herjalleh is the site of a government housing project for displaced people.
The Syrian Army general said rebels who did not want to make peace with the Syrian government would be transferred to Idlib. Those who did would be taken to Herjalleh.
A Syrian military source told Reuters all civilians would leave the city and the army would enter it. People would be allowed to return to their homes once the area’s infrastructure had been rebuilt.