Syrian government allows critically ill to evacuate besieged suburb

The Army of Islam, a prominent rebel group in eastern Ghouta, said patients will be evacuated as part of a deal that was conditional on it releasing an equivalent number of captives.

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, members of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent help a woman who carries a baby to get inside an ambulance during a human evacuation of sick people from the eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, Syria, on Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017.

Syria's government is allowing the evacuation of nearly 30 critically ill people from a besieged Damascus suburb, where hundreds requiring medical treatment have been prevented from reaching hospitals minutes away.

The government recently tightened its siege of eastern Ghouta, home to some 400,000 people, leading to severe shortages of food, fuel and medicine as winter sets in.

Ingy Sedky, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Damascus, said four patients were allowed to leave Tuesday and 25 others are expected to be let out in the coming hours.

It is not clear if all will be evacuated in one batch Wednesday or over several days. The ICRC is partnering with the local Syrian Arab Red Crescent to handle the evacuations. SARC spokeswoman Mona Kurdi said the evacuees arrived in hospitals in government-controlled Damascus, just a few minutes' drive away.

The Army of Islam, a prominent rebel group in eastern Ghouta, said the critically ill will be evacuated as part of a deal that was conditional on it releasing an equivalent number of captives.

"There are many more people who need to be evacuated. We hope this will be only the beginning," Sedky said.

The evacuees included three children, as young as one year old, and one adult. The patients, who traveled with family members, needed immediate treatment for cancer, kidney failure and hemophilia.

At least five detainees were evacuated from eastern Ghouta late Tuesday.

Some patients may not be able to leave eastern Ghouta for government-controlled areas, because they either fear conscription into the army or detention for having lived or worked in opposition areas.

For weeks, the UN has been calling on the government to allow some 500 critically ill people to leave the suburb for treatment and to expand aid groups' heavily restricted access to the area. Activists in eastern Ghouta have circulated photos online of severely malnourished children. The UN says one in eight children in eastern Ghouta is going hungry, up from one in 50 in May.

Earlier this month, the UN said 12 people had died waiting for medical evacuation from eastern Ghouta. Their names were on a UN-drawn list submitted to the government six months ago.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his government is working with Russia, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, to try and evacuate some 500 people from eastern Ghouta, including about 170 women and children, who are in urgent need of humanitarian or medical assistance. Turkey is a leading supporter of the Syrian opposition.

Rights groups say the government has used siege tactics across Syria to starve local populations and force rebels to surrender, which would amount to a war crime. The government denies the allegations, blaming shortages on rebel groups.

Eastern Ghouta was one of the first areas to rise up against Assad when Arab Spring protests spread across the country in 2011. Government forces surrounded the area in 2013, but tunnels and smuggling allowed residents to bring in food and medical supplies.

The government tightened the noose earlier this year following victories against insurgents in other parts of the country.

Assad's rule is more secure than at any time since the uprising began, and the opposition is largely confined to the suburbs around Damascus and the northwestern rebel-held Idlib province.

"De-escalation" agreements brokered by Russia, Iran and Turkey have reduced the violence in most areas, but efforts to reach a political solution to the conflict remain stalled.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday that Russian-brokered talks slated for next month were crucial for reaching a settlement, and would not interfere with UN-backed negotiations, which have made virtually no progress since they began in 2014.

Several dozen Syrian opposition groups have refused to take part in the Russian talks, accusing Moscow of failing to rein in Assad.

Lavrov, who met with Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba on Wednesday, told Russian news agencies that the Sochi congress would lay the groundwork for UN-led talks. Lavrov said Russia's goal is to bring together the largest number of opposition groups possible to help launch constitutional reforms in the war-torn country.

The Syrian government, which supports the Sochi process, has vehemently rejected the opposition's central demand that Assad play no role in a political transition.

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