Smoke rises from eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria March 10, 2018. .
(photo credit: SANA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
BEIRUT - Dozens of buses arrived in rebel-held northwestern Syria on Tuesday carrying Syrian insurgents who agreed to surrender the town they controlled near Damascus after it was hit in a suspected chemical attack, a war monitor said on Tuesday.
Their evacuation, along with their families, came as the United Nations Security Council prepared to meet later on Tuesday to discuss the suspected poison gas attack on Douma over the weekend.
Rebels accused the government, which denies any involvement, and US President Donald Trump pledged to take swift action.
The UN chemical weapons watchdog has started an investigation. The Syrian government's main ally, Russia, said the reports of the chemical attack are bogus.
About 40,000 militants and their families are expected to leave Douma, the pro-government Watan newspaper reported.
The deal restores President Bashar Assad's control over the entire eastern Ghouta - formerly the biggest rebel bastion near Damascus.
Sixty-seven buses carrying hundreds of fighters, along with family members and other civilians who did not wish to come back under Assad's rule, reached opposition areas near Aleppo on Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
RIA news agency quoted Russia's Defense Ministry as saying 3,600 militants and their families had left Douma over the past 24 hours. As part of the surrender deal, the Jaish al-Islam group, which controlled the town, released scores of people it had been holding.
The deal took effect on Sunday, hours after medical aid groups reported the suspected chemical attack, saying it had killed dozens of people in the town the day after the government renewed its intense bombardment.
Jaish al-Islam's departure will bring to an end the opposition presence in eastern Ghouta after a seven-week military offensive against the densely populated area.
Thousands of fighters from other rebel groups, accompanied by tens of thousands of civilians, have already left for northwestern Syria after surrender deals for the Ghouta's other major towns.
It represents Assad's biggest battlefield victory over rebels since late 2016 when he fully recaptured Aleppo, and underlines his unassailable position in the war.
Western countries have said Assad's assault on eastern Ghouta was a violation of a Security Council resolution calling for a complete ceasefire across Syria.
Damascus and Moscow said the groups controlling the area were not covered by the truce, and the offensive was needed to end the control of Islamist insurgents over the area's large civilian population and to stop mortar attacks on the capital.
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