Syria: Hundreds left behind in evacuations near Damascus

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BEIRUT (AP) — More than 400 patients on a U.N. list waiting for evacuations from a siege in Syria were left behind on Friday as the Red Cross said it had finished transferring just 29 people and their families to Damascus for medical care.

It took the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent three days to evacuate the patients and their family members from the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus to hospitals just minutes away, underscoring the degree to which authorities have obstructed basic relief work in the war-torn country.

The U.N. submitted a list of names to the government six months ago of patients requiring evacuation from the government's siege of the suburbs of its own capital because they were suffering from war wounds, kidney failure, and malnutrition. In November, U.N. humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said the list had reached 494 names, and 12 patients had died waiting for care. The U.N.'s children's agency said more than 100 children require evacuation.

The government, which has besieged the eastern Ghouta suburbs with varying degrees of severity since 2013 in response to a revolt against President Bashar Assad's rule, refused to allow any evacuations until this week. Food stores and medical supplies have dried up under the blockade.

U.N. officials have blasted the use of sieges against civilians in Syria as "medieval" and "barbaric." Amnesty International called the tactic a crime against humanity.

It is not clear if the 29 patients evacuated were on the U.N. list.

"We could treat some of the cases if we receive medicines and aid," said Ibrahim Mahmoud of the Unified Medical Bureau in Eastern Ghouta.

The Army of Islam, a prominent rebel faction in eastern Ghouta, said it had agreed to release an equivalent number of captives to the government in exchange for securing the medical evacuations.

The last of the 29 evacuations came as rebels attacked a government position at the town of Harasta, along the eastern Ghouta front, and the government resumed its stepped up bombardment of the suburbs.

Al-Qaida-linked insurgents joined the Ahrar al-Sham rebel faction to launch a new attack on pro-government forces near a military installation partially seized by rebels in mid-November, activists and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

It was the first time the al-Qaida-linked Hay'at Tahrir al Sham — Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee, also known as HTS — joined the battle over the installation. The government maintains that its war in Syria is against al-Qaida and other terrorists.

Fighters for HTS were preparing to leave eastern Ghouta on buses to HTS-dominated northwest Syria two weeks ago, said local media activist Anas al-Dimashqi and Observatory head Rami Abdurrahman. But the arrangements fell apart.

Instead on Friday, dozens of fighters holed up near the Golan Heights boarded buses with their families to the northwestern province of Idlib as part of an arranged surrender to the government, Syrian state media reported.

The state news agency SANA said 300 al-Qaida-linked militants and their families would be sent to Idlib or to Daraa, in south Syria, as part of the arrangement, which allows the government to reassert control over the Beit Jin area, near Israel. Israel has publicly warned against the accumulation of Iranian and Iranian-backed forces at its border. Iran has arranged for thousands of militiamen from across the region to fight on behalf of Assad's government and has sent top commanders to direct its own Revolutionary Guards in the country as well.

Also Friday, Assad's media office published photos of the first family visiting wounded veterans in the central province of Homs over the holidays, capping off a year of newly-found freedom of movement for the President, who spent most of the first years of the civil war in Damascus.

Syria's nearly seven-year civil war has killed some 400,000 people and created the worst refugee crisis since World War II, with some five million Syrians having fled the country.

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