Syrian troops take control of water facility from rebels

Syrian troops take control of water facility from rebels

DAMASCUS, Syria — Syrian government troops gained control of the village that houses the main water source for Damascus Saturday, as fighters begin to evacuate, in a major development that caps weeks of fighting in the area, according to Syrian state TV and opposition media.

The development could signal the end of a standoff in the Barada Valley that restricted the water flow to nearly 5 million residents for nearly a month. The fighting trapped tens of thousands of civilians in the rebel-held area.

Syrian state TV showed buses lined up to transport rebel fighters out of the village of Ain el-Fijeh. The village houses the water source with the same name, which was the major source of water for Damascus.

The opposition monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government forces entered Ain el-Fijeh along with ambulances to transport the injured as part of a deal to end the fighting there.

The cease-fire, brokered by Russia and Turkey, and in place since Dec. 30 was tested by the fighting in the Barada Valley. The fighting was sparked by government claims that rebels poisoned the water source at Ain el-Fijeh — a claim the rebels denied.

The deal also requires the evacuation of those rebel fighters who refuse to put down their weapons. As part of a goodwill gesture, the fighters raised the official Syrian flag, used by the government, over the facility to signal the deal was in place.

On Saturday, maintenance teams were inspecting the water facility at Ain el-Fijeh. Damascus residents have been struggling to deal with the water shortage since late December.

Syrian government and allied troops have been closing in on rebel-held areas around the capital in recent months, driving many of them out under intense shelling and tight siege and securing Damascus.

The military media said about 1,200 fighters are expected to surrender their weapons.

The issue of the Barada Valley was one of the main focuses of indirect rebel-government talks in the Kazakh capital Astana last week. The talks were sponsored by Russia and Turkey and supported by Iran, and ended with a call to reinforce the cease-fire and put mechanisms in place to monitor violations.

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Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.

By Albert Aji, The Associated Press