Syria regime retakes quarter of rebel enclave as civilians flee

US, UK and France step up pressure on Damascus and Moscow to end devastating bombardment of Eastern Ghouta, which has killed more than 600 civilians in 2 weeks

  • A Syrian civil defense volunteer carries children, as he helps them try to flee their homes in the town of Hamouria in Syria's besieged eastern Ghouta region on March 4, 2018, following reported airstrikes. (AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA)
    A Syrian civil defense volunteer carries children, as he helps them try to flee their homes in the town of Hamouria in Syria's besieged eastern Ghouta region on March 4, 2018, following reported airstrikes. (AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA)
  • Smoke billows following Syrian government bombardments on the besieged rebel-held town of Hamouria in the eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on March 3, 2018.  (AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA)
    Smoke billows following Syrian government bombardments on the besieged rebel-held town of Hamouria in the eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on March 3, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA)
  • A bandaged Syrian child sits on a bed next to another child after receiving medical attention at a makeshift hospital in the rebel-held town of Douma, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, following reported regime bombardment on March 3, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / HAMZA AL-AJWEH
    A bandaged Syrian child sits on a bed next to another child after receiving medical attention at a makeshift hospital in the rebel-held town of Douma, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, following reported regime bombardment on March 3, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / HAMZA AL-AJWEH
  • A Syrian youth pulls a cart as he walks down a street past destroyed buildings in the rebel-held besieged town of Ayn Tarma in the eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on March 2, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Ammar SULEIMAN)
    A Syrian youth pulls a cart as he walks down a street past destroyed buildings in the rebel-held besieged town of Ayn Tarma in the eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on March 2, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Ammar SULEIMAN)
  • A Syrian man wounded in air strikes receives treatment at a makeshift hospital in the rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta, on February 25, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / AMER ALMOHIBANY)
    A Syrian man wounded in air strikes receives treatment at a makeshift hospital in the rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta, on February 25, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / AMER ALMOHIBANY)

DAMASCUS, Syria — 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 kilometers (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.

A view of the rebel-held neighborhood of Jobar, on the eastern edge of the Syrian capital Damascus, following a reported regime bombardment, with Mount Qasioun seen in the background, on February 27, 2018. (AFP Photo/ Ammar Suleiman)

They have reached the center 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% 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, who wounded on her cheek.

Syrians living in a shelter seeking protection from airstrikes and shelling by Syrian government forces, in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, Syria, released on February 21, 2018. (Syrian anti-government activist group Damascus Media Center via AP)

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 the 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 that 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.

Smoke rises from buildings following bombardment on the village of Mesraba in the rebel-held besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Hamza Al-Ajweh)

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 responsibility 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 Assad’s forces, heavily backed by Russia, have retaken most of the territory once lost to rebels.

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