Syrian army intensifies assault on war-torn eastern Ghouta as aid agencies struggle to gain access
The ferocious three-week assault on the last major rebel stronghold near Damascus has captured about half its area and killed 960 people
The Syrian army has intensified its operations in the central part of rebel-held eastern Ghouta, state television reported on Saturday, an area where it is close to cutting the enclave in two.
A war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the army had advanced into half of the town of Mesraba, which along with a neighbouring village represents the last link between the northern and southern halves of the war-torn enclave.
Jaish al-Islam and Failaq al-Rahman, the two main insurgent groups in eastern Ghouta, located just outside the capital Damascus, say they have staged counter-attacks in recent days that retook some lost positions.
The ferocious three-week assault on the last major rebel stronghold near Damascus has captured about half its area and killed 960 people, according to the Britain-based Observatory.
The Observatory also said that warplanes, helicopters and artillery had been used in bombardment of the area overnight. The Syrian army has advanced into the area between the two towns of Harasta and Douma, it added.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia, his main ally, say the campaign is needed to end rebel shelling of Damascus and to end the rule of Islamist insurgents over the area’s civilians.
The offensive follows previous assaults on rebel strongholds, deploying massive air power and tight sieges to force insurgents to accept “evacuation” deals.
These involve rebels surrendering territory in exchange for safe passage to opposition areas in northwest Syria, along with their families and other civilians who do not want to come back under Assad’s rule.
Late on Friday, a group of fighters and their families from the former al-Qaeda affiliate previously known as the Nusra Front left eastern Ghouta under such a deal.
But the group represents only a small portion of the insurgent presence in the enclave, and both Jaish al-Islam and Failaq al-Rahman have said they are not negotiating a similar deal for themselves.
The intensity of the government’s attack on an enclave that has been besieged since 2013 and suffers acute shortages of food and medical supplies has drawn Western condemnation and demands by UN aid agencies for a humanitarian halt in fighting.
The United Nations estimates that some 400,000 people are trapped in the enclave.
“Living conditions are harsh … Shop owners and traders are sending their workers to the shelters to sell food for three times their price before the offensive,” said a man in Saqba who identified himself as Abu Abdo in a voice message.
Aid agencies have tried to deliver aid into eastern Ghouta, but have only been able to bring in part of the amount they wanted.
A convoy was unable to finish unloading on Monday because of continued fighting, bringing in the remaining undelivered food parcels on Friday despite bombardment nearby.