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Thousands flee Ghouta rebel enclave as Syria army advances

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Syrians from rebel-held Eastern Ghouta walk through a regime-controlled corridor in Hawsh al-Ashaari, east of the Eastern Ghouta town of Hamouria, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, after escaping the enclave on March 15, 2018. Thousands of civilians poured out of Syria’s Eastern Ghouta bringing the government closer to retaking the rebel enclave near the capital as the brutal war enters its eighth year. / AFP PHOTO / Louai Beshara / 

Thousands of civilians poured out of Eastern Ghouta on Thursday as the capture of a key town brought Syria’s government even closer to retaking the devastated rebel enclave outside Damascus.

Defying expectations and calls to step down, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad was strengthening his grip on power Thursday as the conflict entered its eighth year.

His troops gained new ground in their ferocious assault against Eastern Ghouta, once the opposition’s main bastion on the outskirts of the capital.

Regime forces now control 70 percent of the area, a war monitor said, and have split the remaining rebel territory into three shrinking pockets.

After a fierce air and ground assault, regime forces on Thursday captured Hammuriyeh, a town in an isolated southern zone of Ghouta.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said Hammuriyeh fell to regime forces after fighters from the Faylaq al-Rahman rebel faction withdrew.

The regime’s advance into Hammuriyeh overnight had opened up a corridor through the town into government-controlled territory.

Streams of women and children escaped through that corridor on Thursday, carrying plastic bags stuffed with clothes and pushing strollers piled high with suitcases and rugs.

They reached a regime-held checkpoint in the region of Adra, where ambulances and a group of large green buses were waiting to take them to temporary shelters.

‘Largest displacement’
The Observatory said more than 12,000 people fled the enclave on Thursday in “the largest displacement since the beginning of the assault on Ghouta.”

The Russian military, which has backed the offensive on the rebel enclave, said as many as 13,000 people could leave Ghouta by the end of the day.

Eastern Ghouta had been the main rebel bastion on the outskirts of Damascus since 2012 and came under a devastating regime siege the following year.

That left the area’s roughly 400,000 residents struggling to secure food and hospitals crippled by shortages of medicine and equipment.

On Thursday, a joint convoy of food supplies for some 26,000 people entered Douma, the largest town in Ghouta and part of a separate rebel-controlled pocket.

“This is just a little of what these families need,” said the International Committee of the Red Cross, which was carrying out the delivery alongside the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the United Nations.

ICRC President Peter Maurer was present with the convoy, the first time he had accompanied such an operation.

Twenty-five trucks were delivering food parcels and flour bags to hunger-stricken residents in Douma when mortar rounds hit nearby.

Aid workers were sent scrambling for cover, an AFP correspondent said, but were able to resume delivery shortly afterwards.

Divide-and-conquer
Thursday’s aid operation came after two consecutive days of medical evacuations from Douma, which saw dozens of civilians bussed out to receive treatment in Damascus.

Eastern Ghouta was designated in May 2017 as a “de-escalation zone” — an area where violence is supposed to be reduced to pave the way for humanitarian assistance and a nationwide truce.

But since February 18, Russian-backed government troops have pressed a ferocious air and ground campaign in Ghouta that has brought most of the one-time opposition bastion under government control.

The remaining parts have been cut off from each other, in what analyst Nawar Oliver said was part of a divide-and-conquer strategy.

“The summary is that the regime cut up Ghouta into three zones, to comfortably work on securing three different agreements,” said Oliver of the Turkey-based Omran Institute.

Assad is determined to retake Ghouta in order to secure the capital, which is regularly battered by rockets and mortars fired from the adjacent rebel enclave.

Dozens in Damascus have been killed in rebel fire in recent weeks, including one person who died on Thursday, according to state news agency SANA.

The assault on Ghouta, meanwhile, has left nearly 1,250 civilians dead, around a fifth of them children.

The United Nations has made repeated demands for an immediate ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta, but they have gone unheeded.

For the past seven years, international efforts to bring an end to the violence raging across Syria have consistently failed.

The conflict has drawn in world powers, with Russia backing Assad and Turkey supporting an array of rebels in Syria’s north against the regime, jihadists, and Kurds.

Ankara and allied Syrian factions have since January 20 been waging a deadly ground and air assault against the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin in northwest Syria.

They have seized more than 70 percent of that region, according to the Observatory, and are on the verge of surrounding Afrin city.

The city is home to around 350,000 people and defended by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).


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