Assad retakes quarter of enclave

Members of a Syrian civil defence team rescue a man following a reported government air strike on rebel-held Eastern Ghouta (AFP)

DAMASCUS, March 4, (Agencies): Syria’s regime has 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. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime forces had advanced to 3 kms (2 miles) from Douma, the main town, after retaking “more than 25 percent” of eastern Ghouta, in operations mostly through farmlands. The government’s 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 left more than 640 civilians dead, sent hundreds of residents into flight to western parts of the enclave.

Under growing international pressure to end the bloodshed, 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. Backed by Russian air power, 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. 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 Britain-based monitoring group, 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. Damascus and Moscow say they are trying to clear the area of “terrorists”. 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. 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-yearold Abu Khalil, carrying a little girl in his arms wounded on the cheek. “Many families are trapped under rubble, the rescue workers just can’t cope.” 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 Feb 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, the announcement of daily humanitarian pauses in fighting had raised hopes of some aid deliveries and evacuations. But trucks loaded with aid have so far been unable to enter the enclave, according to the UN. 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. The Russian military said no civilians exited via the established corridor on Saturday.

Damascus and Moscow have accused rebels of preventing civilians from leaving. French President Emmanuel Macron and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres expressed “grave concern” about the humanitarian situation in a telephone conversation late Saturday. “The UN convoys must immediately deliver medical assistance and food aid to the besieged population,” the French presidency said. The UN’s regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Panos Moumtzis, sounded the alarm on Sunday over the increase in 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. Eastern Ghouta remains one of the few areas outside their control, along with the northwestern province of Idlib which is partly controlled by al-Qaedalinked jihadists. Russia and Syria are responsible for the “heart-breaking human suffering” in the Syrian rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta, US President Donald Trump and his British counterpart Theresa May said Sunday.

The two leaders discussed the “appalling humanitarian situation in eastern Ghouta” during a phone call Sunday detailed by May’s Downing Street office. “They 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 prime minister’s office said.

Syria’s regime has seized control of over a quarter of eastern Ghouta, on the edges of the capital Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Sunday. May and Trump said “Russia and others with influence over the Syrian regime must act now to cease their campaign of violence and to protect civilians”. The Syrian government’s advance on eastern Ghouta comes after 15 days of devastating air strikes, artillery fire and rocket attacks that are reported to have left more than 640 civilians dead. Meanwhile, Macron called on his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani on Sunday to put the “necessary pressure” on the Syrian government to halt “indiscriminate” attacks on civilians in the rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta.

During a telephone call between the two leaders, 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. Their talks came as a monitoring group said forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad had seized control of over a quarter of eastern Ghouta, on the edge of Damascus, after two weeks of devastating bombardment. The offensive has reportedly killed more than 640 civilians and sent hundreds more fleeing, prompting growing international calls to end the bloodshed. “The two presidents expressed their agreement to work together in the coming days along with the UN, in conjunction with the Damascus regime and the main countries involved in Syria, to secure results on the ground, supply necessary aid to civilians and implement an effective ceasefire,” Macron’s office said.

He and Rouhani are expected to speak again later this week. Macron’s office also said the French leader reiterated his support of the 2015 deal to limit Iran’s nuclear activities, signed by Tehran and six world powers. However he urged Iran to give “clear responses” to worries about the country’s ballistic missile programme as well as claims that its foreign policies were heightening tensions throughout the region, in particular in Lebanon. “He emphasised our expectation of Iran’s positive contribution to regional de-escalation and efforts to resolve crises in the Middle East,” the presidency said. The United Nations said it plans to deliver much-needed humanitarian assistance on Monday to Syrians besieged in the rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta near Damascus. A convoy that would enter the enclave would consist of “46 truckloads of health and nutrition supplies, along with food for 27,500 people in need”, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, said on Sunday in a statement. Violence has escalated in eastern Ghouta, despite a U.N. ceasefire call a week ago, and the bombing of the besieged Syrian enclave represents a “simply unacceptable” punishment of civilians, the United Nations said on Sunday.

Nearly 600 people have been reported killed and more than 2,000 injured in air and ground-based strikes since Feb 18, UN regional humanitarian coordinator Panos Moumtzis said, noting that mortar shells fired from the rebelheld enclave into the capital Damascus had killed and injured scores of civilians. “Instead of a much needed reprieve, we continue to see more fighting, more death, and more disturbing reports of hunger and hospitals being bombed. This collective punishment of civilians is simply unacceptable,” Moumtzis said in a statement.

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