Syrian forces step up assault on Ghouta as civilian death toll rises

Syrian forces step up assault on Ghouta as civilian death toll rises
From CBC - March 7, 2018

Syrian government forces poundeda town in eastern Ghouta with airstrikes on Wednesday in aneffort to slice the rebel enclave in two as they intensified acampaign to deal the opposition its biggest defeat since 2016.

The Syrian government assault of the densely populated areaon the outskirts of Damascus began more than two weeksago, and has become one of the fiercest campaigns of the war, which is entering its eighth year. The Syrian Observatory for HumanRights says 800 civilians have been killed bygovernment bombing and shelling.

Live footage broadcast by Syrian state TV from the outskirtsof the town of Mesraba showed enormous clouds of smoke risinginto the sky. The sounds of explosions and jets could be heard.

A state TV correspondent said militant defences in the townwere being struck by "preparatory fire" in advance of a plannedinfantry assault.

Capturing Mesraba would divide the eastern Ghouta in twoafter days of a ground offensive that the observatory says hasalready seen government forces capture nearly half of theterritory. The monitoring groupsaid an extra 700 pro-governmentmilitia fighters had arrived at the front as reinforcements.

In Douma, eastern Ghouta's biggest town where civilians fromother parts of the area have sought shelter, the sound of frontline battles could be heard, a witness there told Reuters.

Lack of food, medicine

The United Nations says 400,000 people are trapped in thetowns and villages of eastern Ghouta, under government siegefor years and already running out of food and medicine beforethe assault. An aid convoy reached the area this week butgovernment officials had stripped out most medical supplies.

Russia, President Bashar al-Assad's most powerful ally, hasoffered rebel fighters safe passage out with their families andpersonal weapons. The proposal echoes previous agreements underwhich insurgents, in the face of military defeat, were permittedto withdraw to opposition-held areas at the Turkish border.

The UNSecurity Council has called for a 30-daycountrywide ceasefire, but Moscow and Damascus have not halted the campaign, arguing the fighters they are striking aremembers of banned terrorist groups unprotected by the truce.

Russia's Defence Ministry said Wednesday some rebelswanted to accept the proposal to evacuate. Rebels havedismissed it in public. The military spokespersonfor one of themain eastern Ghouta rebel groups said rebels would defend theterritory and there were no negotiations over a withdrawal.

Failed ceasefire


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