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Pro-government media says Syrian army preparing 'huge' operation in Ghouta

Thousands have been evacuated from the besieged rebel-held enclave in the last week
A Syrian rebel fighter slinging a Kalashnikov assault rifle and a Violet NGO volunteer help another injured man walk after arriving in the village of Qalaat al-Madiq (AFP)

The Syrian army is preparing to launch a "huge" operation against the last rebel-held town in eastern Ghouta unless the Jaish al-Islam rebel group agrees to hand over the area, a pro-Syrian government newspaper reported on Wednesday.

"The forces deployed in Ghouta are preparing a huge military operation in Douma if the Jaish al-Islam terrorists do not agree to hand over the city and depart," al-Watan newspaper said.

The warning comes as the largest convoy yet of Eastern Ghouta evacuees arrived in northwestern Syria on Tuesday.

Government troops, backed by Russia and loyalist militia, launched a ferocious assault more than a month ago to retake the enclave on the outskirts of Damascus.

They have recaptured more than 90 percent of it and are draining the last rebel-held pockets through negotiated withdrawals brokered by Russia.

Russia and the Syrian government it supports reportedly threatened to resume their blistering bombardment if the last holdout pocket that includes the main Ghouta town of Douma does not agree to a similar deal.

Jaish al-Islam, the powerful Islamist faction that holds Douma, had hoped talks with Moscow would result in their staying in the town, instead of being bussed out like other rebels.

But negotiations have stalled and Russia is reverting to its initial "leave or die" approach, two opposition sources close to the negotiations said.

"At the end of their meeting Monday, the Russians gave Jaish al-Islam two choices: surrender or face an attack," one of them told AFP.

Jaish al-Islam spokesman Hamza Bayraqdar had said the negotiations were for a deal whereby the group lays down its heavy weapons in exchange for government-provided water and electricity returning to the town.

Two deals have already seen thousands of rebels, their relatives and other civilians bussed out of bombed-out Ghouta districts to Idlib, a northwestern province that is mostly out of government control.

Thousands board buses

The largest numbers have quit the towns of Arbin and Zamalka, and the adjacent district of Jobar, all controlled by the Faylaq al-Rahman Islamist faction.

The group reached a deal with Moscow on Friday and its implementation began the following morning with nearly 1,000 people boarding buses and leaving.

The numbers have grown steadily since, with the biggest convoy yet departing in the early hours of Tuesday with more than 6,700 people aboard.

They arrived Tuesday afternoon in the Qalaat al-Madiq area of central Hama province, a staging ground frequently used in such deals, an AFP correspondent said.

In Qalaat al-Madiq, a man wearing an ammunition belt unloaded a bag from a bus hold, while a young man with his leg in a cast was wheeled away by rescue workers.

That convoy brought the total number of evacuees from areas under Faylaq al-Rahman's control to more than 13,000 people.

The group's spokesman, Wael Alwan, has said as many as 30,000 people could be evacuated in all.

President Bashar al-Assad has used such evacuation agreements to recover swathes of territory since the uprising against his rule began seven years ago this month.

They have usually begun with the military encirclement of an area, followed by bombardment and a ground operation before a deal is reached.

Eastern Ghouta lies within mortar range of Damascus, and rebels had repeatedly used it as a launchpad for rocket attacks on the capital.

The government responded with a crippling half-decade siege of the enclave's 400,000 residents, sealing off access to food, medicines and other goods.

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