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Chemical weapons watchdog set to enter Douma as rebels evacuated

The Syrian government will soon be in full control of the one-time opposition enclave in Eastern Ghouta
Jaish al-Islam fighters and their family members evacuated from Douma this week (AFP)

More Jaish al-Islam fighters and civilians left the Syrian town of Douma on Friday, state media said, a day before international chemical weapons specialists are due to enter the enclave to investigate last Saturday's suspected attack.

The evacuations are part of a negotiated withdrawal reached last weekend for Douma, the final holdout in the rebels' former stronghold of Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus. 

Jaish al-Islam said it only agreed to pull out of Douma after the chemical attacks on 7 April.

Local organisations have said that at least 70 people were killed in the attacks which have spurred the US, France and the UK to consider military action.

A team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is expected to start investigating the attacks in Douma on Saturday. 

The Syrian government has consistently denied using chemical weapons, including in Douma, and invited the world's top chemical watchdog to conduct an investigation.

State news agency SANA reported the departures from Douma were ongoing on Friday, "in preparation for announcing it cleared of terrorists".

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In the morning, 95 empty buses entered Douma to carry out civilians and rebels from Jaish al-Islam, the opposition faction present in the town. 

More than 60 reemerged full of fighters and their relatives and were waiting at a gathering point on the edge of Ghouta for the rest of the buses, state media reported.

Once the convoy was complete, they would move together to opposition-controlled territory in northern Syria. 

The evacuations are part of a deal brokered by Damascus's Russian ally to re-establish government control over Ghouta, an area just on the edge of the capital that had escaped government control since 2012.

Moscow has said it expected 40,000 civilians and 8,000 rebels to leave Douma. Jaish al-Islam has already handed over or destroyed their heavy weapons.

Russia announced on Thursday that the entire territory that was once the Eastern Ghouta rebel enclave was now under government control.