DAMASCUS: Syria’s army on Monday was in complete control of the capital and its outskirts for the first time since 2012, after ousting the militant Islamic State group from a last pocket of resistance.
It marked a major milestone in the protracted war, which began in 2011 and saw parts of Damascus fall to armed rebels the following year.
But in recent months, President Bashar al-Assad has used a blend of military pressure and negotiated withdrawals to steadily flush rebels out of territory around Damascus.
A small IS holdout remained in the capital’s south. Troops and allied Palestinian militia launched an offensive last month to recapture the area covering the Palestinian camp of Yarmuk and adjacent districts of Qadam, Tadamun and Hajar al-Aswad.
On Monday, the army declared it had ousted IS from that zone, sealing its control of the capital.
“The Syrian army announces today that Damascus, its outskirts and surrounding towns are completely secure,” it said in a statement carried on official media.
“The wheel of our progress on the battlefield will not stop until all Syrian land is purified.” Weeks of fierce combat subsided at the weekend when a ceasefire allowed for group withdrawals, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“The evacuations are over, after 32 buses took 1,600 people including IS fighters and their relatives out of southern Damascus on Sunday and Monday,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.
They were heading east towards Syria’s Badiyah, the vast stretch of desert where IS still holds tiny slivers of territory.
After the final departure around midday on Monday, Syrian troops entered Yarmuk for combing operations, said the Britain-based monitor.
Yarmuk was the largest Palestinian camp in Syria and was put under crippling government siege in 2012 — making it one of the longest besiegements of Syria’s war.
Attacks by Syria’s government, as well as rebel and jihadist infighting, have ravaged the district for years.
IS overran it in 2015, and the thriving 160,000-strong population dwindled further to just several hundred.
The evacuations from Yarmuk were shrouded in secrecy and took place under the cover of darkness with no media present.