BEIRUT (AP) — The Russian military announced on Thursday that the Syrian government is now in full control of a town on the outskirts of Damascus that was held by the rebels and that was the site of suspected chemical attack over the weekend.
There was no official announcement by Damascus, however, and no indication that Syrian government forces had entered the town of Douma on Thursday.
If confirmed, the developments would mark the last stage of the Syrian government's takeover of the rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta, on Damascus' outskirts. Douma and the region of eastern Ghouta was a significant rebel stronghold during Syria's civil war, now in its eighth year.
Meanwhile, Syrians are bracing for a possible U.S. attack in retaliation to an alleged chemical assault that killed dozens on Saturday in Douma. The Foreign Ministry in Damascus has denounced President Donald Trump's threat to attack the country as "reckless" and a danger to international peace and security.
The Russian Defense Ministry statement followed a chaotic day in Douma that saw rebels there open fire as opposition fighters were leaving with families under a so-called evacuation deal mediated by Russia to hand over the town to the government and end a months-long military siege.
The Defense Ministry said the situation in Douma, just east of the Syrian capital, was "normalizing."
According to the war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Russian military is deploying to reassure the remaining civilians in Douma.
Wednesday's gunfire broke out during the evacuation of the latest batch of civilians and rebels after pro-government supporters attempted to raise government flags over buildings in Douma and chanted in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad before the evacuation of rebel fighters was completed.
Some Russian journalists who had entered the town with a reconciliation delegation were wounded in the melee. The Observatory said more evacuations would take place on Thursday.
The evacuation deal, which brings the last opposition-held area near the capital under government control, has been fraught with difficulties.
Amid earlier disagreements, a truce collapsed last week and the Syrian government pressed ahead with its offensive.
The offensive was followed by a suspected chemical attack in Douma on Saturday that killed more than 40 people and sparked an international condemnation. The United States and allies have threatened to take military action against Syria in response to the chemical attack. Syria and Russia deny the attack took place.
The evacuation deal called for the formation of a local council to administer Douma. Thousands of civilians are staying in Douma, and some fighters are also expected to stay, on condition that they hand in their weapons. More than 13,500 Syrian rebel fighters and their families left Douma this month.
The Observatory said there are still rebel fighters inside Douma, some of them would still be evacuated to the other opposition held areas in northern Syria.