President Bashar Assad's embattled government in Syria was handed a strategic victory Friday with a rebel retreat in a long besieged Damascus suburb, as that country's civil war rages on - the sixth year of fighting.
Daraya's rebels agreed to evacuate in a deal late Thursday, after four years of grueling bombardment and a crippling siege that have left the sprawling suburb in ruins.
Preparations started on Friday morning for the evacuation in batches that was expected to last four days, sources said.
On Thursday, reports emerged claiming that the Syrian army and the so-called moderate armed opposition reached an agreement under which some 4,000 civilians must leave Darayya, as well as 700 armed terrorists, who will be taken to Idlib. Around 4,000 civilians will be taken to shelters in and around Damascus. From July 1 to August 16, 886 bombs or shells targeted the city, more than double the number of the preceding four months, according to western humanitarian aid officials.
It concludes: "The world is watching". The army and rebels blamed each other.
A convoy of trucks from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the United Nations delivered food supplies to its residents in June.
Analysts warned Friday that the fall of Darayya could have a domino effect, piling pressure on the last remaining pockets of rebel resistance around the capital.
He said he hoped the presence of the Red Crescent would be enough to prevent the government from arresting the evacuating rebels. "You know the situation is bad when you hope that it is just ethnic cleansing, and that the population will be safely moved elsewhere instead of killed, arrested, and abused, as we have seen in past forcible surrender situations", Szybala told The Daily Beast.
Before the war, Daraya was home to quarter of a million people.
Rebel factions seized the suburb in 2012 but found themselves steadily losing a war of attrition with pro-government forces who mounted an increasingly tight siege on the area.
Friday's evacuation provoked anger and bitterness among opposition supporters, and the rebel said residents wept as they prepared to leave.
Long sieges have forced rebels in several locations to agree evacuation arrangements with the government, which has prompted activists to accuse Damascus of using "starve or surrender" tactics.
The plight of civilians in Daraya and other besieged areas, has always been of concern to the United Nations, which has condemned the use of starvation by both sides in the Syrian conflict as a weapon of war.
But he said "a United Nations humanitarian team is reaching out to all parties, including the local population".
"For four years Darayya was under siege and the global community did nothing", he said in a radio broadcast in northern Syria.
The evacuation comes on the heels of a meeting on Syria between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov in Geneva. Since early June, Darayya has come under attack nearly daily, with the Syrian government accused of using barrel bombs, shelling and incendiary weapons. "The city was destroyed over our heads and we are now not leaving a city but a pile of rubble", he said.