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Russia Says Syria Now Controls Most Of Embattled Damascus Suburb


Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Syrian and Russian forces have evacuated most remaining rebels from eastern Ghouta and the government now controls 90 percent of the embattled Damascus suburb, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said.

"As of now, the majority of the militants have been evacuated," Lavrov said at press conference in Moscow on March 29 after meeting with UN Syrian envoy Staffan de Mistura.

"Ninety percent of eastern Ghouta is under government forces' control" and "efforts to restore civilian life are underway," he said.

While the offensive since February to retake control of the sprawling Damascus suburb represents Russia's and Syria's biggest win since they regained control of Syria's largest city of Aleppo, it was also one of the bloodiest campaigns of the seven-year civil war.

The United Nations and human rights groups have said more than 1,600 civilians were killed and thousands more faced dire conditions of hunger, homelessness, and a dearth of medical care.

Western nations sought to impose a cease-fire to try to reduce civilian casualties and enable the delivery of humanitarian aid, but a UN Security Council resolution passed on February 24 failed to take hold.

For Russia and Syria, the devastating bombardments denounced by most of the rest of the world produced results.

War monitors have confirmed in recent days that Syrian troops have recaptured more than 90 percent of eastern Ghouta, and through a series of pull-out deals with remaining rebels mediated by Russia, are draining the last pockets of opposition in the area.

Moscow has secured two such evacuation deals already and has been pressing Jaish al-Islam, the rebel faction in control of the last enclave in the town of Douma, to leave as well.

Russia's deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov said on March 29 that negotiations with Jaish al-Islam, or Army of Islam, were continuing.

"There are working group contacts. They contact us, they write letters, they talk on the phone, we meet," he was quoted as saying by Russia's RIA Novosti news agency.

Army of Islam spokesman Ammar al-Hassan said Syria and Russia are insisting that the group's fighters move north, but they have rejected such demands.

Syrian state television reported that the Syrian government has given the Army of Islam three days to leave or face an "all-out offensive" aimed at clearing the area.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said after the talks in Moscow with de Mistura that rebels attempted to put suicide attackers on buses evacuating residents from Ghouta. But after receiving a tip about the planned attacks, he said the Russian military disarmed the would-be attackers.

"It's easy to imagine what would happen if those suicide attackers blew themselves up on the buses carrying women and children," Shoigu said.

Shoigu said that Russia and Syria have evacuated a total of 130,000 civilians and 11,000 rebels from eastern Ghouta over the past two weeks. Most evacuees have been transported to the northwest province of Idlib, the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Interfax

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