Daraya (Syria) (AFP) - Rebels and civilians, many in tears, began evacuating the Syrian town of Daraya on Friday after a four-year army siege, in a blow for the beleaguered opposition.
The evacuation came after a deal struck by President Bashar al-Assad's government and opposition forces in the town, which is near Damascus and was one of the first to rise up against the regime.
The fighters and their families left the devastated town aboard buses escorted by ambulances and Red Crescent vehicles, an AFP reporter said.
The first bus to emerge from Daraya carried mostly children, elderly people and women.
Government troops waved their weapons in celebration when buses carrying rebels left the town, and taunted the fighters by chanting pro-regime slogans.
Inside Daraya, which has been surrounded by loyalist forces since 2012 and suffered constant bombardment, tearful residents said final goodbyes, a local rebel told AFP.
"This is the hardest moment, everyone is crying, young and old," he said on condition of anonymity.
State news agency SANA, which announced the deal on Thursday, said 700 rebels and their families would go to rebel-controlled Idlib and thousands of civilians would be taken to government reception centres.
The evacuation is expected to last until Sunday, and a military source said the army would then enter Daraya.
A rebel official told AFP the civilians would go to regions under regime control around the capital and rebels will go to Idlib "or sort out their situation with the regime".
A military source said 300 rebels and their families would be evacuated during Friday.
- 'Weeping residents' -
Daraya council said on Facebook that civilians would be taken to the government-held town of Hrajela in Western Ghouta, outside Damascus.
"From there they will continue to the areas they wish to go to," it said.
The council said fighters and their families would be taken to northern Syria, escorted by the Red Crescent.
The United Nations said it was not involved in negotiating the deal, although a UN team would enter Daraya to identify civilian needs.
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said it was "tragic that repeated appeals to lift the siege of Daraya... and cease the fighting, have never been heeded".
It was "imperative" that its residents be protected and evacuated only voluntarily, he said.
"The world is watching."
Daraya is just 15 minutes drive from Damascus and even closer to the government's key Mazzeh air base.
Daraya was seen as a symbolic bastion of the March 2011 uprising that began with peaceful protests against Assad's government, before degenerating into a war that has killed more than 290,000 people.
Rebels accused the government of killing some 500 people in a military operation in Daraya in August 2012.
Friday's evacuation provoked anger and bitterness among opposition supporters, and the rebel said residents wept as they prepared to leave.
"People are saying goodbye to one another, children are bidding their schools farewell, mothers are saying goodbye to the martyrs in the graves," he said.
"People are gathering their memories and the few possessions they have left to preserve the memory of the four years of siege, hunger and shelling."
- Daraya 'destroyed' -
The rebel said the decision to evacuate had been taken because of deteriorating humanitarian conditions.
"The town is no longer inhabitable, it has been completely destroyed," he said.
In four years, just one food aid convoy entered Daraya, in June, shortly after a convoy carrying medicine.
The arrival of the food was followed by heavy regime bombardment that residents said stalled distribution.
According to the UN, nearly 600,000 live under siege across Syria, most surrounded by government forces, although rebels and jihadists also use the tactic.
Long sieges have prompted rebels in several locations to agree evacuation deals with the regime, prompting activists to accuse Damascus of using "starve or surrender" tactics.
On Friday, the UN said only a single full aid convoy had reached besieged areas of Syria in August, denouncing the "wholly unacceptable" level of access.
In Geneva, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed efforts to resume Syrian peace talks, with De Mistura briefly joining them.
As the meeting got under way, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to step up efforts to ensure humanitarian aid reaches civilians in the battlefront northern city of Aleppo.
Moscow and Washington back opposing sides in the Syria war which has become a complex conflict involving several regional powers as well as jihadists.