Syrian government forces have reportedly taken back control of an area near Damascus that provides most of the capital’s water supplies after reaching a deal for rebel fighters to withdraw.
The Syrian army and its allies launched an offensive last month to drive insurgents from the Wadi Barada valley, which they have controlled since 2012, and to recapture a major spring and pumping station.
Syria’s mainstream rebel factions are under intense pressure after losing areas they held in the northern city of Aleppo to government forces at the end of last year, and now face a fierce assault by Islamist militants elsewhere.
Wadi Barada, which lies northwest of Damascus, has become one of the fiercest battlefronts in Syria’s civil war. Disruption to water supplies, including infrastructure damage, has caused acute shortages in the capital this month.
Government forces entered the village of Ain al-Fija, where the spring and pumping station are located, early on Saturday, a military media unit run by Lebanese group Hezbollah, an ally of Damascus, reported.
“The Syrian army has entered Ain al-Fija … and raised the Syrian flag over the spring installation,” a statement by the unit said, adding that the development was due to a deal reached with insurgents by which the rebels would leave the area.
Teams were preparing to enter Ain al-Fija to fix the pumping station and the army had secured control of the village, it added.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitoring group, said government forces had begun moving into the spring area as rebel fighters withdrew.
Under the deal reached between the government side and local representatives, rebels hailing from outside the Wadi Barada area would leave for the northwestern province of Idlib, an insurgent stronghold, carrying light weapons, the Observatory said.
Rebels from Wadi Barada would be allowed to leave too, but could also opt to stay and serve with pro-government forces, it added.
The Syrian government has struck similar local ceasefire deals with the opposition in several western parts of the country, usually involving the transfer of rebel fighters and their families to Idlib.
The opposition has said the process amounts to forced population transfer.