The first batch of fighters from Jaish al Islam are being transported to Jarablus from the town of Douma as part of an evacuation deal, leaving behind only undecided hardline fighters, regime media and a war monitor say.
The most powerful Syrian rebel faction on the fringes of Damascus began abandoning its stronghold in the once rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta on Monday, opening the way for the regime forces to secure full control of the area, after seven years of revolt.
A Russian-brokered deal had been reported on Sunday for fighters with Jaish al Islam (or Army of Islam), the largest rebel group still in Ghouta, to leave the enclave's main town of Douma.
"Twelve buses carrying 629 Jaish al Islam terrorists and their families exited Douma ... in preparation of them being transported to Jarablus," regime news agency SANA reported, using the regime's term for all rebel fighters.
Journalists on the ground said both the regime and the rebels had restricted access to the evacuation operation from Douma.
There was no immediate comment from the opposition group. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the civil war through a network of activists on the ground, also reported the evacuation.
The retaking of eastern Ghouta would mark a major milestone in regime leader Bashar al Assad's efforts to regain control of territory seized by rebel factions during Syria's seven-year civil war.
Assad's forces have retaken 95 percent of eastern Ghouta since launching a blistering assault on the besieged enclave on February 18, killing 1,600 civilians and displacing tens of thousands more.
Division within ranks of fighters?
Pro-regime newspaper Al Watan said in an editorial on Monday it was a matter of hours until Douma was declared a "town empty of terrorism".
"The town of Douma has come closer to joining other villages and areas of [eastern] Ghouta taken back by the army," it said.
The rebels have been negotiating with Russia, a key ally of Assad, for days on an agreement to evacuate Douma.
Late on Sunday, Russian news agency Interfax quoted General Yuri Yevtushenko as saying a "preliminary deal" had been reached to evacuate Jaish al Islam fighters.
SOHR, on Monday, reported divisions within the ranks of Jaish al Islam, which has previously said it would not leave Douma.
"There are attempts to convince the hardline wing of Jaish al Islam not to obstruct the agreement with the Russians," said the head of the Britain-based monitor, Rami Abdel Rahman.
'We will stay'
In video footage published by Jaish al Islam online on Sunday, the group's leader told a group of men in a mosque he would stay put.
"We will stay in this town and will not leave. Those who want to leave should leave," Essam al Buidani says in the video, although it was unclear when it was filmed.
Jaish al Islam counts around 10,000 fighters, according to SOHR.
Backed by Russia, Assad's forces have scored a series of victories over rebel forces in recent years, often through campaigns of siege, aerial bombardment and ground offensives that have drawn widespread international condemnation.
Syria's seven-year bloodletting has left around 450,000 killed. More than 11 million people — about half the country's prewar population — have been displaced from their homes, including over 5 million who are living as refugees outside Syria, according to the United Nations.
The UN has estimated the material cost of the war damage at close to $250 billion.