Fears for Syrians 'still trapped' in Damascus suburb

The BBC's Lyse Doucet was there to witness thousands of Syrians fleeing their home after nine months under siege

There are fears many civilians may still be trapped in a besieged suburb of the Syrian capital Damascus, despite thousands being allowed to leave.

The BBC's Lyse Doucet, who witnessed the exodus, says the government believes only rebel fighters remain in the suburb of Muadhamiya.

But reports say thousands more civilians are too frightened to leave.

Meanwhile, a source in Muadhamiya told the BBC more than 500 men who fled are being detained by the authorities.

The claim has not been independently verified.

If true, this would contradict comments made by the Syrian Red Crescent to the BBC on Wednesday morning that all the men had arrived at a government centre for internally displaced people in Damascus.

At least three Damascus suburbs have been besieged by the army for months.

'Terrorists'

The civilians who left were allowed out through an evacuation negotiated between the government and opposition fighters who control the area.

The head of operations for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society, Khaled Arksoussi, told the BBC that 1,500 to 1,800 people left Muadhamiya on Tuesday.

They were given first aid and then were taken to a shelter.

Map showing the location of the Damascus suburb of Muadhamiya

It is expected families could stay for as long as a month.

Some will join relatives elsewhere, while others have nowhere else to go.

The government says all civilians have now left the besieged area, with only what it calls "terrorists" staying behind.

Kinda al-Shamamat, the Syrian minister for social affairs, said whoever stayed behind was the enemy.

She said: "Inside Muadhamiya there are armed groups. They are terrorists. Now we take the civilians to safe places. And then those people are not our responsibility, they are terrorists."

But our correspondent says that one activist the BBC reached by Skype said thousands of civilians were still trapped inside, too frightened to leave.

The activist said that, despite assurances of safe passage, many men who left were now in detention.

Our correspondent says she is unable to verify his claims, but what is clear is the siege is not over.

Supplies in Muadhamiya had been running desperately short, and residents had pleaded to be saved from starvation.

'Eating grass'

The Syrian army had previously said that rebel-held areas of Damascus such as Muadhamiya could surrender or starve.

People walk from the rebel-held suburb of Muadhamiya to government-held territory, helped by aid workers The people of Muadhamiya were running short of food and water
A volunteer from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent helps a weeping man Muadhamiya has been under siege and heavy bombardment since March - with no one able to get in or out
Woman held by Red Crescent workers Some were too ill to walk, and had to be assisted by Red Crescent workers
Syrian families leave their besieged town Most of those trapped were women and children
Men wait to be searched by the Syrian military The men were taken to a separate area, to be searched by the military
Men wait to be searched by the Syrian military The army wants to check if any of these men were fighting on the rebels' side

At least two other Damascus suburbs - Yarmouk and Eastern Ghouta - have also been besieged by government forces for several months.

The situation had become so desperate that, earlier this month, Muslim clerics issued a religious ruling allowing people to eat cats, dogs and donkeys just to survive.

Those animals are usually considered unfit for human consumption in Islam.

For months, the UN and other aid agencies have been calling for urgent help, fearing the worst for the people of Muadhamiya.

"We didn't see a piece of bread for nine months," one woman told the BBC. "We were eating leaves and grass."

Official sacked

Meanwhile, Syria's Deputy Prime Minister, Qadri Jamil, was dismissed on Tuesday for leaving the country and acting without government permission, state media said.

Mr Jamil met US officials in Geneva over the weekend to discuss peace negotiations, according to UN and Middle East officials.

But the state news agency Sana said Mr Jamil had been dismissed by President Bashar al-Assad "because he left his centre of work without prior permission and did not follow up on his duties".

"Additionally, he undertook activities outside the nation without co-ordinating with the government," Sana said.

More than 100,000 people have been killed in the fighting that has ravaged Syria for two-and-a-half years, according to the UN.

A further two million people have fled Syria and some 4.5 million have been displaced internally.

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