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Russian strikes kill 37 civilians as evacuations continue from Syria's Ghouta

Hundreds of fighters evacuated from besieged Eastern Ghouta arrived in Idlib on Friday
Syrian rebel fighters, members of the Syrian Red Crescent, and Civil Defence stand around a bus that is part of a convoy carrying rebel fighters and civilians (AFP)

Russian air strikes killed 37 civilians in the Arbin area of the shrinking rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus overnight, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Friday.

"Russian air strikes and incendiary weapons killed the civilians in a basement from burning or suffocation" late on Thursday before a ceasefire came into effect in the area, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.

Russia has denied being directly involved in air strikes on Eastern Ghouta. The Britain-based Observatory says it relies on flight patterns, aircraft involved and ammunition used to determine who carries them out.

The strikes come as hundreds of fighters evacuated by the Syrian government from their Ghouta arrived in rebel-held Idlib province on Friday.

Buses carrying the fighters and their families entered the northwestern province after their evacuation from the town of Harasta on Thursday, said the Observatory.

An AFP reporter at a camp for the displaced in the Maaret al-Ikhwan area in the north of Idlib province saw some of the evacuees arrive.

Families entered the camp but the fighters were not allowed in, he said.

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Before dawn, some 400 fighters and hundreds of civilians on buses and ambulances had stopped in the town of Qalat al-Madiq in Hama province to the south, the Observatory said.

Among them was a man who had died of his injuries on the way, said the monitor, which relies on a wide network of sources inside Syria for its information.

The AFP reporter saw hundreds of people on buses draw into Qalat al-Madiq, where rebel fighters and members of the Red Crescent and the White Helmets civil defence organisation were waiting.

The evacuation from Harasta comes after pro-government forces launched a blistering air and ground offensive on Eastern Ghouta, the last rebel bastion near Damascus, on February 18.

The assault has retaken 80 percent of the enclave, the Observatory says, and divided what remains into three shrinking pockets, each controlled by a different rebel group.

The evacuation of rebels from Harasta could empty the smallest of these pockets and pile pressure on those controlling the two others to accept similar deals.

Eastern Ghouta is within mortar range of central Damascus, and the evacuation deal could be a major first step in the government's efforts towards securing the capital.

The one-month offensive on Eastern Ghouta has killed more than 1,500 civilians, the Observatory says, and caused tens of thousands to flee into government-held areas.

More than 400,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict since it broke out in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

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