Jihadists evacuated from area near Damascus
DAMASCUS - Dozens of jihadist and rebel fighters were evacuated from a key stronghold near Damascus under a deal with the Syrian regime, state television reported Friday.
It said 10 buses "transported Al-Nusra fighters and members of their families from Western Ghouta" towards Idlib and Daraa provinces.
Al-Nusra Front now calls itself Fateh al-Sham Front. It is a former Al-Qaeda affiliate that dominates the northern province of Idlib -- the last province of Syria still fully outside regime control.
State television said four of the buses would head to Idlib while the remaining six would head for Daraa, part of which is under rebel control.
Many of the jihadists and rebels were evacuated from the strategically vital village of Beit Jin, held by rebels for more than four years, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Regime forces last week retook a string of small rebel-held pockets near the country's capital and in the northwest in the past two weeks, with operations focusing on the hilly terrain around Beit Jin.
Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman said the evacuation would mean the rebels would no longer have any presence in the western Ghouta for the first time since 2012.
The strategic region links the capital to the southern provinces of Quneitra and Daraa.
The evacuations coincided with clashes pitting the Syrian army against jihadists and rebels on the edge of Idlib province, which left dozens dead on Friday.
The fighting, which could signal the start of a major offensive to wrest Idlib province from rebels dominated by a former Al-Qaeda affiliate, escalated on Thursday.
Since then, at least 68 people have been killed in the ongoing clashes centred around an area called Al-Tamana, the Observatory said.
Among them were at least 21 civilians, said Rami Abdel Rahman, who heads the Britain-based war monitor.
They were killed in air strikes carried out by Russian warplanes and by barrel bombs dropped by Syrian aircraft, he said.
Regime forces were driven out of Idlib Province in 2015 by a coalition of rebels and jihadists that crumbled last summer after the Fateh al-Sham Front launched an offensive against its erstwhile rebel allies.