Amid truce, Syrians return to gutted Damascus ghost towns, Islamic State ranks exit Palestinian ghetto

AP

Hundreds of families displaced by fighting in a neighborhood on the edge of the Syrian capital returned to their homes Wednesday as part of a truce between the government and local rebels reached last year.

Their return to the Qadam neighborhood is the latest in a series of ground-level local agreements to end fighting and ease suffering in the war-stricken country.

State news agency SANA said 25 buses transported the returnees from nearby areas after final arrangements had been made for their return to homes fled in 2013-2014 battles that transformed Qadam into a ghost town. The area was largely destroyed by intense fighting that ended with a cease-fire in August 2014 after months of negotiations.

The government has struck several similar deals with rebels in other neighborhoods and suburbs of Damascus, usually after besieging them for months and pounding them into submission, opposition activists say.

Syrian authorities tout the truces as part of the government’s program of “national reconciliation” to end the conflict, which has killed more than 250,000 people since March 2011.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said around 4,000 residents returned to Qadam and surrounding areas on the southern edge of Damascus on Wednesday.

Separately, Palestinian officials said wounded fighters from the Islamic State group and al-Qaida-linked militants have begun evacuating from a Palestinian refugee camp and surrounding areas in Damascus over the past few days, in the buildup to another deal that could see more than 3,000 Islamic State fighters leave the area.

The evacuation from Yarmouk camp and Hajar Aswad is part of a U.N.-backed deal reached between the Syrian government and armed factions, and would see the Islamic State fighters and their families transferred mostly to the extremist group’s de-facto capital, Raqqa, in northern Syria, according to Palestinian officials.

“We are seeing the preparations. The buses are already in place. But as always, these negotiations are sensitive,” said Anwar Raja, a Palestinian official in Damascus.

The Islamic State group and the Nusra Front have controlled the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, just a few kilometers (miles) from the heart of Damascus, since April 2015.

Seventeen buses have already departed over the past few days carrying some civilians and wounded people, Khaled Abdul-Majid, another Palestinian official in Damascus, told the AP.

It was not clear when remaining fighters and their families would be evacuated.

The activity around Damascus comes ahead of peace talks in Geneva scheduled for next week.

Differences over which Syrian opposition groups should be labeled terrorists and barred from the negotiations have threatened to delay the talks, the first step in a proposed 18-month political transition.

A senior opposition official, Riyad Hijab, on Wednesday accused Russia of obstructing the talks by trying to impose conditions on which opposition groups can participate, and said the opposition will not take part in talks while Syrians die from blockades and Russian shelling.

Moscow is a key ally of the Syrian government and has been carrying out airstrikes against insurgents since Sept. 30.

Speaking in the Saudi capital, Hijab also announced the names of opposition negotiators. They include Mohammad Alloush, a representative of the Jaysh al-Islam rebel group, considered terrorists by the Syrian government and Russia.