HAMMURIYEH, Syria, March 8, (Agencies): Syrian forces pursued a relentless air and ground offensive against eastern Ghouta on Thursday, moving closer to retaking the rebel enclave but also depriving desperate civilians of vital aid.
More than 900 civilians have been killed in the nearly three-week assault on the last rebel enclave outside the capital, where dozens suffered overnight from a suspected chlorine attack. On another front in Syria’s complex seven-year war, pro-Turkey rebels seized control of the key northern town of Jandairis from Kurdish fighters.
Russia-backed government forces have retaken more than half of eastern Ghouta, a monitor says, since launching their devastating offensive on the enclave on Feb 18. The fighting has prompted international outrage, culminating in the UN Security Council demanding an immediate ceasefire, aid deliveries and evacuations.
On Thursday, air strikes and rocket fire on the towns of Zamalka and Sabqa killed 13 civilians, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said. An aid delivery planned for Thursday was meant to bring relief to warweary civilians inside eastern Ghouta, which is home to 400,000 inhabitants who have been living under government siege since 2013. But with bombardment continuing, the joint convoy between the United Nations, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Syrian Arab Red Crescent could not go through.
“The convoy for today is postponed,” ICRC spokeswoman Ingy Sedky said. It marks the second time this week aid operations have been disrupted by military developments, with food deliveries cut short Monday due to bombardment. Jens Laerke, a spokesman for the UN’s humanitarian coordination office (OCHA), said: “The movement of the convoy was not authorised by the Syrian authorities due to security reasons.”
Eastern Ghouta towns and villages have fallen in quick succession in recent days, with regime forces on the verge of cutting the remaining rebelheld territory into two isolated pockets. A military official on Thursday said the regime would open up a new “humanitarian corridor” for civilians wishing to flee from the south of the enclave. AFP’s correspondent in the town of Hammuriyeh saw motionless bodies lying in the streets on Thursday after a night of ferocious bombing. On Wednesday, volunteers from the civil defence group known as the “White Helmets” were seen trying to douse flames burning two men lying dead on the street next to a motorbike after a strike.
Dozens of civilians were treated in the town for breathing difficulties late Wednesday, with medics reporting symptoms consistent with a toxic attack. Doctors at one facility treated at least 29 patients with signs of exposure to chlorine, according to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), which supports hospitals in eastern Ghouta. It said victims were suffering from shortness of breath, wheezing, and redness of the eyes. Several families were seen trying to reach fresh air late Wednesday on the roof of a four-storey building in Hammuriyeh, after air strikes on their neighbourhood. “I’m going to suffocate,” two children screamed as rescue workers carried them down from the roof.