BEIRUT — Syrian rebel groups said Friday that a deal had been struck to evacuate thousands of people from the besieged and broken Syrian enclave of Eastern Ghouta amid growing reports that men who crossed to government territory are being forcibly conscripted.
Friday’s agreement, which was expected to take force in the coming days, entails the surrender of militant fighters in one of three pockets of rebel control. In a statement, the Faylaq al-Rahman group said that Russia had agreed to a deal that would allow opposition fighters and their relatives to travel to northern Syria.
In effect, this means boarding the green buses that have become a regular feature of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s victories, carrying opposition fighters, relief workers and other civilians toward the rebel-held province of Idlib. A similar agreement has already been reached in another pocket.
U.N. investigators have described the practice as “enforced displacement,” a war crime. Faylaq al-Rahman said Russian military police would deploy in areas that have been under the group’s control, including the suburbs of Arbeen, Zamalka, Ein Tarma and Jobar. A prisoner exchange will take place between the group and the government, the group said.
Syrian and Russian warplanes have killed hundreds of civilians in the enclave since Feb. 18, in an offensive to root rebel forces out of their final stronghold on the edge of Damascus.
Tens of thousands of residents have returned to Syrian government areas after five years of punishing sieges. State television has broadcast scenes of former residents clutching posters of Assad and declaring their relief. Others have trudged past the camera in silence, dazed and exhausted. With all entrances to the enclave controlled by pro-Assad forces, dozens of people have died from lack of food or medicine.
Monitoring groups and local residents say that men of fighting age have been forcibly conscripted as they leave. The Violations Documentation Center monitoring group said it had received reports that young men had, in some cases, been arrested as they passed government checkpoints, later telling families they had been forced to join the army.
Among cases documented by the White Helmets rescue group was one involving one of their own. The organization said Friday that a volunteer had surrendered to the Syrian authorities in return for his family’s safe passage. It said the man had been conscripted into a pro-government militia.
“We cannot blame anyone who does this, because it is the only way to survive now. They are doing it to save their brothers, their children,” said Mahmoud al-Yousef, an official with the White Helmets in Damascus.
Almost 2,000 people have been killed across the enclave since mid-February, according to the opposition-run health authority, despite a U.N. Security Council resolution intended to halt the violence.
Monitoring groups have documented the use of bunker-busting munitions, chlorine gas, and barrels packed with explosives and shrapnel. On Friday, the groups said that Russian warplanes had dropped incendiary weapons on an air raid shelter, killing at least 37 people, many of whom were women and children.
“We have previously documented how the use of incendiary weapons is burning alive civilians who are literally left with nowhere to hide. This attack would appear to be the latest horrific example in that pattern,” said Rawya Rageh, Amnesty International’s crisis response senior adviser.
Russia’s Defense Ministry called the allegation “a glaring lie,” the Tass news agency reported.
As Syrian forces advanced through the enclave, a widely circulated selfie showed two soldiers grinning for the camera as they stood guard over a room full of women and young children. The offensive is being lauded across state media, and Damascus residents cheered from car windows Friday night as they drove through the city.
The United Nations said that more than 50,000 people from Eastern Ghouta have arrived at its temporary reception centers, a number that far exceeded the organization’s capacity to provide the displaced with food, water or toilets.
“The conditions are really dire,” said Rachel Sider, a policy adviser for the Norwegian Refugee Council. She said that, in some cases, the shelters had been filled with four times the expected number of displaced people, and that many showed signs of malnutrition and trauma. Every family is being screened by Syrian government forces, according to people in the area, with fullnames searched against a database to establish whether they are wanted by the government for further interrogation.
In a video circulated on Syrian news websites and social media Friday, a member of parliament identified as Muhammad Kanbad was seen handing out aid from the back of a van as he exhorted the gathered crowd to chant in favor of the government.
“Say ‘Long live Assad’; say it!” he cried, raising a finger aloft as he paused his distribution. They did.
“Who is your president?” he asked.
And with that he handed them a single bottle of water.
Suzan Haidamous in Beirut, Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul and Heba Habib in Stockholm contributed to this report.