23:17 GMT +320 April 2018
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    Russian military police members stand guard at the Wafideen checkpoint on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus neighbouring the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta enclave on March 13, 2018, awaiting any civilians evacuating from the area

    Strenuous Effort to Liberate Thousands of Civilians Eastern Ghouta Continues

    © AFP 2018 / Louai Beshara
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    DAMASCUS (Sputnik) - As armored vehicles and trucks are slowly parking on the central square in the town of Kafr Batna in Syria's Eastern Ghouta, tired and hungry people greet the military with hope, while a fight is ongoing just a kilometer away from the area.

    Fierce skirmishes continue in Eastern Ghouta for the second month alongside tense talks with the leaders of armed groups about laying down arms and evacuating civilians.

    Arab Spring in Eastern Ghouta

    The leaders of radical groups in Eastern Ghouta had no choice but to accept the Syrian government’s proposal to leave the region provided they would take only small arms with them.

    The people's discontent, which had been mounting for two weeks, resulted in mass rallies in mid-March, when several thousand people gathered on the square where the Syrian military is now hugging and taking pictures with the local residents.

    Weakened by hunger and fear, the people had found the strength to pick up state flags and take to the streets demanding that the militants leave. At that time, the residents of Kafr Batna were aware that the army was approach and that it was time to act.

    "We had almost the second Arab spring here… The first one was in 2011 against the government, today, the second, against the militants. Most people have realized that they had been deceived, and they knew the price of that mistake," a man who lived in Kafr Batna with his family throughout the Syrian war told Sputnik.

    The houses in the militant-held town are not damaged as badly as in neighboring towns, where fierce fighting has taken place. Improvised stalls have even been set up in several small alleys selling, however, nothing but spices and worn-out shoes.

    "We refused to leave the town and continued to believe that the army would save us. Just yesterday, we had nothing. The militants took all the humanitarian aid, leaving us with a handful of rice and bread. Look what we have here today: there are Red Crescent trucks with food products over there. In that street, government trucks have unloaded bread, water and canned food and organized its distribution," a local woman named Hadija said with impulsive gestures as she gave her child a pita and a bottle of water.

    Go See for Yourself

    Khaled, an officer of the Syrian Republican Guard, suggested that we leave our car and walk into town.

    Heavy equipment and machine gunners in pickup trucks continue to cruise the central street, but life is waking up with every minute in the depths of the town's winding roads.

    A sociable local resident, who introduced himself as Mohamed, joined us as we turned a corner of a house in a downtown area. The young man, who was fluent in English, refused to speak Arabic, opting for English instead.

    "The local sheikh acted as a mediator in negotiations and persuaded the citizens to hide in a large mosque until everything was over, persistently conducting negotiations with the commanders of the militant brigades," Mohamed said as we stood next to a school building that was painted with revolutionary flags and symbols.

    According to Mohamed, the militants divided into two camps. The first are the outsiders, most of whom were members of Jabhat al-Nusra and refused to lay down their arms and went to the neighboring town of Ein Terma, located closer to the central parts of Damascus. The second are the many local militants that have laid down their arms and want to fight for the army. The latter group, according to the arrangements, has kept their arms in order to be able to fight terrorists in case of counterattacks.

    Neighboring Saqba

    The situation in the town of Saqba, which is next to Kafr Batna, is more discouraging. Tens of thousands of people had left it via a humanitarian corridor in Hammuria before the town fell under the army's control.

    According to the agreements reached with the participation of the Russian center for Syrian reconciliation, the militants were supposed to leave Saqba for Ein Terma and Arbin just like they did in Kafr Batna. However, some of the militants remained in the tunnels under Saqba and tried to sabotage the Syrian military as they entered the town.

    Many years of experience helped to avoid big losses. The army's vanguard, together with deminers, slowly inspected each house, and basements with entrances and exits to the underground terrorist base, which covered many miles.

    Strategic Shift in Kafir Batna

    Having liberated Kafr Batna and expelled militants from the southeastern outskirts of Ein Term, the army linked up with the troops within the city limits of Damascus, thus dividing Eastern Ghouta into three circles. The southern part contained the largest terrorist outpost created from the settlements of Ein Terma, Arbin, Jobar and Zamalka. The second circle closed around the town of Harasta, while Douma became the third surrounded city.

    At the time when the formation of the three pockets was completed, the terrorists had practically lost their entire "human shield." Almost 130,000 people have left Eastern Ghouta since February 27, with the overwhelming majority of them having fled the areas of militants concentration during the past two weeks.

    President Assad's Visit

    Following the liberation of Kafr Batna and Saqba, the negotiations process became alive. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s visit to the front line in Eastern Ghouta has cheered up the Syrian troops.

    "It’s a positive development when we can liberate a town without fighting. We must not forget that there are civilians out there and that we must protect their lives. The militants are using them as a human shield," Assad said as he drove along the busy streets of the Syrian capital.

    The Syrian leader explained that the West was trying in every possible way to use the situation in Eastern Ghouta to its own advantage, the civilians' mass escape from terrorists revealed what was really going on to the international community.

    Resistance is Futile

    The Russian center for Syrian reconciliation center is conducting direct talks with the warlords of the militants remaining in Eastern Ghouta to find the right arguments and provides guarantees convincing the terrorists in Harasta and the southern pocket to surrender.

    "It's hard to believe that they will leave the place just like that. They have built strong defense there. Let's see what happens in the coming days," Nazir Saidi, a retired Syrian officer, said a day before the militants and their families started leaving Eastern Ghouta for Idlib.

    The withdrawal of the militants and their families from Harasta began three days after the liberation of Kafr Batna, Saqba and Jisrain.

    Buses and ambulances drove deep into the area controlled by the militants and lined up next to the exit from the humanitarian corridor. As many as 4,979 irreconcilable citizens were removed from Harasta in a matter of days.

    It was then the turn of the militants who holed up in southern Ghouta. More than 17,000 militants and members of their families were removed from the towns of Jobar, Ein Terma, Zamalka and Erbin to Idlib ijust in three days. The fourth bus column with a one-way ride is still being formed.

    The southern outpost comprising four towns is considered the most problematic for the people of Damascus. The distance from Jobar to the historic center of Damascus is less than one kilometer (0.6 miles). Deployed on the outskirts of the city, the terrorists subjected Damascus to mortar and rocket fire on a daily basis.

    Following the announcement of the agreements reached with the militants in Jobar and Ein Terma, a real feast began on the streets of the capital. The people set off fireworks, treated each other with sweets in the streets, and simply congratulated and hugged each other.

    It Is Not Over Yet

    Despite the joyful and hopeful mood of Damascus' 7 million residents, it is still early to talk about a complete victory of the Syrian army in Eastern Ghouta. The town of Douma remains controlled by Jaysh al-Islam terror group.

    Despite complete encirclement, a concrete agreement with the militants has not been reached yet. Meanwhile, the command of the Syrian army is pulling forces to the town, most likely as part of Plan B — to take the city by storm if it refuses to surrender.

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    war, liberation, civilians, Eastern Ghouta, Syria
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