DAMASCUS, March 18 (Xinhua) -- The Syrian army on Sunday captured the town of Saqba in the capital Damascus' Eastern Ghouta countryside and civilians started returning immediately to their homes.
The Syrian soldiers were fanning out in the area and the civilians who remained in the area welcomed the soldiers.
Meanwhile, civilians who had evacuated Saqba hours ahead of its liberation, immediately started returning to their homes in that area before they could even reach shelters outside Eastern Ghouta.
A field commander with the Syrian army told Xinhua that many of the rebels in Saqba had surrendered, while others fled ahead of the Syrian fighters' arrival.
Speaking to Xinhua, the officer, who asked not to be named, said the liberation of Saqba was made possible by the cooperation with the civilians inside, who had protested before against the rebel presence in their area.
"The next days will be beautiful as Eastern Ghouta will be liberated from the terrorists who have wreaked havoc in this area," the officer said.
The town has sustained damage during the battles, with many buildings either largely or partially destroyed but the people seemed relieved that safety has returned.
Abu Hisham was standing next to his apartment building, chatting with a Syrian soldier while holding his son.
"We hope to live in happiness and to have our lives back because we have suffered a lot over the past seven years from the hunger, horror, and siege," he told Xinhua.
Other civilians expressed relief that their area is no longer a battle zone.
Abu Alaa', another resident of Saqba, said they can finally breathe "after seven years of hunger, siege, humiliation, agony, and thank God we have been liberated from terrorism."
"The terrorists have destroyed the area and suffocated us," he said.
Earlier in the day, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited a frontline area in Eastern Ghouta area, meeting with soldiers and civilians as well, the Syrian presidency media office said.
The media office of the Syrian army published two photos, in which Assad appeared surrounded by soldiers with a caption reading "on the frontline in Eastern Ghouta, President Assad is with the heroes of the Syrian army."
The report didn't divulge the exact location Assad has visited, but said it was in the "depth of Ghouta."
"Every bullet you have fired to kill a terrorist, you were changing the balance of the world, and every tank driver advancing a meter forward, he was changing the political map of the world," Assad was quoted as saying.
The president added that "we congratulate all the Syrians with this victory and we are proud of every hero of the heroes of the Syrian army."
Assad also met with civilians from Eastern Ghouta who have recently fled rebel-held areas, with a video footage aired on the state TV, showing him speaking with cheering crowds.
The rare visit, which apparently aimed to showcase confidence and victory, comes as the Syrian forces are making strides in the battles against various rebel groups in Eastern Ghouta.
State news agency SANA said thousands of people fled areas in Eastern Ghouta on Sunday, the latest in a series of mass evacuation from that rebel stronghold on the eastern rim of Damascus.
The War Media, the media wing of the Syrian army, said the Syrian government forces have so far captured 60 percent of Eastern Ghouta, as the troops captured the town of Saqba on Sunday and are advancing toward Kafar Batna town.
Eastern Ghouta, a 105-square-km agricultural region consisting of several towns and farmlands, poses the last threat to the capital due to its proximity to government-controlled neighborhoods east of Damascus and ongoing mortar attacks that target residential areas in the capital, pushing people over the edge.
Four major rebel groups are currently positioned inside Eastern Ghouta, namely the Islam Army, Failaq al-Rahman, Ahrar al-Sham, and the Levant Liberation Committee, known as the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.
The UN humanitarian agencies have sounded the alarm about the worsening humanitarian situation for 60 ,000 people in that region.
Activists said around 1,000 people have been killed since late last month by the heavy bombardment and military showdown in areas of Eastern Ghouta.