BEIRUT — Syrian officials said Sunday that authorities working with the Red Crescent had overseen the evacuation of 3,000 women and children from a battleground suburb of Damascus to temporary shelters outside the war zone.
The government said the civilians evacuated from Muadhamiya, an opposition stronghold southwest of the capital, had been “held hostage by the terrorists,” referring to armed rebels. Those rescued were to be taken to temporary shelters “equipped with all basic life needs,” the official state news service said in a statement.
But opposition activists said the residents left Muadhamiya in a brokered deal allowing them to escape a relentless government bombardment that has killed many civilians. The district has been under military siege for several months.
[Updated 1:22 p.m. PDT, Oct. 14: On Monday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said that thousands of civilians remained in Muadhamiya, including hundreds who are sick or wounded and require urgent care. The Red Cross urged Syrian officials to permit the delivery of medical supplies to the suburb and all areas under siege outside Damascus.
“All parties must ensure that the civilians remaining in Muadhamiyah are protected, that the sick and the wounded receive proper medical treatment, and that those who wish to leave besieged areas can do so safely,” said Magne Barth, who heads the ICRC delegation in Damascus.
Muadhamiya was among the Damascus suburbs that were subject to poison gas attacks on Aug. 21 that caused hundreds of casualties.]
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based pro-opposition group, the evacuation of civilians from Muadhamiya is “a result of days of negotiation and agreement brokered by humanitarian organizations to evacuate the residents from [an] area that is witnessing acute food and medical shortages.” How many civilians remain in the contested suburb was unclear.
Each side in the conflict has accused the other of preventing humanitarian aid from reaching Muadhamiya, which has remained largely under rebel control.
In battle zones throughout Syria, the government and rebels regularly give conflicting accounts of the status of civilians trapped in embattled, rubble-strewn neighborhoods and towns.
The government alleges that rebels routinely force residents to remain in opposition bastions so that the military, fearing high civilian casualty tolls, will hold back its bombardment. The opposition alleges that the Army has bombarded civilian districts without concern for residents' lives.
Large swaths of several once-thriving suburbs of Damascus have been reduced to near ghost towns where battles rage amid the ruins. Rebels hide in the debris and burrow into tunnels to avoid government shelling, emerging in guerrilla fashion to attack advancing troops and tanks trying to reassert government control. Intense street fighting has continued in this fashion for months, with no end in sight.