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Syria regime retakes quarter of rebel enclave as civilians flee

(AFP): Syria’s regime seized control of over a quarter of rebel-held Eastern Ghouta on the edge of Damascus after two weeks of devastating bombardment, sending hundreds of civilians into flight, a monitor said Sunday.

As the United States, Britain and France stepped up pressure on Damascus and Moscow to end the bloodshed, the United Nations said it plans to deliver much-needed humanitarian aid to Eastern Ghouta’s besieged residents.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime forces had advanced to within three kilometres (two miles) of Douma, the enclave’s main town, after retaking “more than 25 percent” of Eastern Ghouta, in operations mostly through farmlands.

The advance into the last major opposition enclave near the capital, on the back of 15 days of air strikes, artillery fire and rocket attacks that are reported to have killed more than 640 civilians, sent hundreds into flight to western parts of the enclave.

Regime backer Russia last week announced daily five-hour “humanitarian pauses” in the enclave. But while the air campaign has eased, fighting has intensified on the ground.

With the support of Russian warplanes, the Syrian military has advanced on several fronts, retaking control of farms and villages, a military source told state media.

The source said government forces seized a number of districts including Al-Nashabiyeh and Otaya, and had “eradicated terrorist groups” on the eastern outskirts of Damascus.

They have reached the centre of the enclave, to the edge of Beit Sawa, according to the Observatory, a Britain-based war monitor.

After advances in recent days that saw the regime seize control of 10 percent of Eastern Ghouta, rebel fighters clashed with regime forces on Sunday in the eastern part of the enclave, the Observatory said.

Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Observatory, said at least 12 regime fighters had been killed in two areas, Al-Rihan and Shifoniya, in overnight clashes with the Jaish al-Islam rebel group.

Jaish al-Islam shares control of rebel-held parts of Eastern Ghouta with Faylaq al-Rahman and Ahrar al-Sham.

Hamza Bayraqdar, a spokesman for Jaish al-Islam, said on Twitter that the group’s forces had launched “surprise attacks” against regime positions.

The Observatory, which relies on a network of sources on the ground, said rebels had retaken some parts of Shifoniya.

– Hundreds flee –

An AFP correspondent inside Eastern Ghouta saw hundreds of civilians on Sunday fleeing from the town of Beit Sawa in the southeast of the enclave.

The Observatory said some 2,000 civilians had fled regime shelling and clashes in eastern areas to western parts of the enclave.

“Everyone is on the road. There’s destruction everywhere,” said 35-year-old Abu Khalil, carrying a little girl in his arms wounded on the cheek.

On Saturday, 18 civilians, including three children, were killed in regime bombardment of Eastern Ghouta, according to the Observatory.

At least 76 pro-regime fighters and 43 rebels from Jaish al-Islam have also been killed in clashes since February 25, it says.

Encircled by regime-controlled territory and unable or unwilling to flee, Eastern Ghouta’s 400,000 residents have in recent weeks suffered one of the most ferocious assaults of Syria’s civil war.

Under siege since 2013, they had already been facing severe shortages of food and medicine. The region’s over-burdened medical workers have been struggling to cope with the rising number of wounded.

While falling short of a 30-day ceasefire demanded by the United Nations, Russia’s announcement of daily humanitarian pauses in fighting had raised hopes of some aid deliveries and evacuations.

A convoy of “46 truckloads of health and nutrition supplies, along with food for 27,500 people in need” would finally enter the battered enclave on Monday, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.

The OCHA said further deliveries would follow and that it had “approval” to help 70,000 needy residents.

Moscow has offered safe passage to non-combatants wishing to leave Eastern Ghouta during the pause, but no Syrian civilians have left the enclave since the first break in fighting took effect on Tuesday, the Observatory says.

Damascus and Moscow have accused rebels of preventing civilians from leaving.

– ‘Simply unacceptable’ –

On the international front, US President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May said Russia and Syria were responsible for the “heart-breaking human suffering” in Eastern Ghouta.

The two leaders, during a phone call, “agreed it was a humanitarian catastrophe, and that the overwhelming responsibility for the heart-breaking human suffering lay with the Syrian regime and Russia, as the regime’s main backer”, the premier’s office said.

French President Emmanuel Macron called on his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani to put the “necessary pressure” on Syria’s regime to halt “indiscriminate” attacks on civilians.

Also in a phone call, Macron underscored the “particular responsiblity for Iran, because of its ties to the regime, regarding the implementation of the humanitarian truce” sought by the UN, his office said.

The UN’s regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Panos Moumtzis, sounded the alarm over the increased violence.

“Instead of a much-needed reprieve, we continue to see more fighting, more death, and more disturbing reports of hunger and hospitals being bombed,” he said.

“This collective punishment of civilians is simply unacceptable.”

As Syria’s conflict approaches its seventh anniversary, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, heavily backed by Russia, have retaken most of the territory once lost to rebels.

(Smoke billows following Syrian government bombardments in the Eastern Ghouta region on March 3, 2018. Photo: AFP)

Published Date: Sunday, March 4th, 2018 | 11:51 PM

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