The Syrian Government has moved closer to ending rebel resistance in Eastern Ghouta, with civilians streaming out of one of its besieged, bomb-battered towns and rebels preparing to surrender another.
- Buses have arrived in the town of Harasta to evacuate rebels and civilians
- 18,000-20,000 people are expected to remain in the town
- More than 6,000 people have fled the larger town of Douma since Wednesday
The army assault on Eastern Ghouta, an area of towns and farmland just outside Damascus, has been one of the most intense in Syria's seven-year war, killing more than 1,500 people in a relentless bombardment from war planes, shells and rockets.
A witness said buses have driven into the town of Harasta, and a Syrian military source said 600 to 700 fighters were expected to be among about 2,000 people leaving in them in the coming hours for opposition areas in north-west Syria.
Hundreds of people, including scores of fighters, had already started boarding buses at an assembly point inside Harasta, the military source said.
Between 18,000 and 20,000 people were expected to stay in Harasta under government rule, the source added.
Meanwhile, state television reported more than 6,000 people had fled the larger rebel-held town of Douma since Wednesday, crossing over into government-held territory.
The Ahrar al-Sham group's decision to surrender Harsata leaves only Douma and another rebel pocket in Eastern Ghouta that includes the towns of Jobar, Ein Terma, Arbin and Zamalka.
They are all that remain of the main insurgent stronghold near the Syrian capital Damascus, the biggest prize for President Bashar al-Assad in his fight against the rebels since the recapture of Aleppo in late 2016.
Over the past week, tens of thousands of people have fled across the frontlines into government territory.
The deal to surrender Harasta is the first by Eastern Ghouta rebels, and began on Thursday with a prisoner swap.
The witness at the crossing with Harasta said the army had removed barriers from the old frontline lying across the road into the town to allow the buses to pass.
The Jaish al-Islam rebel group that holds the town has said it is determined to fight on after a month-long government offensive that has taken 70 per cent of the former opposition enclave in Eastern Ghouta.
However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitoring group said people leaving the area were doing so under an agreement between the group and the Government's closest ally, Russia.
The Syrian Government and Russia have both accused rebels in Eastern Ghouta of stopping civilians leaving the area.
They say their assault is needed to end Islamist militant rule over the area's people.
However, the ferocity of the Syrian army's offensive in Eastern Ghouta has prompted Western condemnation and urgent pleas from United Nations humanitarian agencies for a ceasefire.