Ghouta safe passage ‘a ruse for Assad’s ethnic cleansing’

Offering safe passage from Eastern Ghouta for civilians and opposition fighters is a ruse by the Assad regime to enable ethnic cleansing and demographic change, the Syrian opposition told Arab News on Saturday.

Bashar Assad is trying to turn the enclave east of Damascus “into something like the southern suburb of Beirut. It is going to be a new Syrian Hezbollah to protect the regime,” opposition spokesman Yahya Al-Aridi said.

But he vowed that this would not happen because the spirit of revolution was in the heart and soul of every Syrian. “And the world is not going to be silent forever. This is what we hope for, and this is what we are working for.”

Al-Aridi said “Leave or die” had been the slogan of the regime since the beginning of the uprising in 2011. “Its motto is: Either rule it, or ruin it. This is the behavior of criminals.

“We are trying our best to protect our people and we will continue to do so.”

Meanwhile, buses that will take opposition fighters, their families and other civilians to northwestern Syria began entering the southern part of Eastern Ghouta. The buses queued at a crossing point before moving into the enclave along a road on the former front lines that had been cleared of barricades, debris and unexploded ordnance.

About 7,000 fighters will leave the towns of Zamalka, Arbin, Ein Terma and Jobar. Russia’s military said on Saturday more than 105,000 people had already left Eastern Ghouta, including over 700 on Saturday.

Assad regime forces advanced into towns the opposition fighters had retreated from in preparation for their exit, and state television broadcast pictures of the massive trenches and other fortifications the fighters were leaving behind.

The fighters and their families will go to Idlib province, the destination for many such “evacuations” after sieges and ground offensives forced numerous opposition enclaves to surrender in the past two years.

Idlib is also unsettled by fighting between opposition groups. An explosion on Saturday at a headquarters for Al-Qaeda’s former affiliate killed at least seven people and injured 25.

Russia has guaranteed that civilians who remain in the areas recaptured by the Assad regime will not be prosecuted, but Wael Alwan, spokesman for the Failaq Al-Rahman group that was dominant in Zamalka, Arbin, Ein Terma and Jobar, said he did not trust the guarantees.

Only the city of Douma now remains of the opposition’s Eastern Ghouta enclave, which a month ago the UN said was home to 400,000 people and was the opposition’s main stronghold near Damascus.

Tens of thousands have fled their homes in the past week as the bombardment of Douma intensified and refugees from other parts of Ghouta found the basement bomb shelters already too full to take them.

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