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Syrian conflict

As many as 16,000 civilians flee Ghouta and Afrin as the two Syrian battles enter decisive phases

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 March, 2018, 2:15am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 March, 2018, 5:41am

Thousands of civilians were fleeing from besieged enclaves on opposite ends of Syria on Friday as two major battles in the multi-sided war entered decisive phases that saw the body count rising ever higher.

Weary residents streamed out of eastern Ghouta on foot as Russian-backed government forces pressed their campaign to capture the last big rebel bastion near Damascus. A similar exodus occurred in Afrin, which is under Turkish bombardment.

At least 80 civilians were killed in Ghouta in airstrikes by government jets and allied Russians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The deadliest strikes were mounted by Russian jets in the enclave’s town of Kafr Batna, leaving at least 46 civilians dead, the monitoring group added.

“This is another massacre and the world is still silent,” Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based observatory, said.

The Syrian war, which entered its eighth year this week, has killed half a million people and driven more than 11 million from their homes, including nearly six million who have fled abroad in one of the worst refugee crises of modern times.

The government launched its offensive on eastern Ghouta a month ago, and Turkey began its cross-border assault in Afrin in January. Both continue despite UN demands for a 30-day ceasefire.

Moscow and Damascus argue the rebels they target in Ghouta are terrorists unprotected by the truce. Turkey says the same of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia it is fighting in Afrin.

Bombing and bloodshed in Syria to rage on

Moscow and Damascus also accuse the rebels of having forced people to stay in harm’s way as human shields. The rebels deny this and say the government aims to depopulate opposition areas.

Whatever the case, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been trapped inside encircled pockets on the battlefield, with the UN estimating that up to 400,000 people are caught with dwindling supplies of food and medicine.

But now, for the first time in a month, thousands of residents are fleeing in their thousands, carrying children and belongings on foot to government positions.

The Syrian army and allied forces have recaptured 70 per cent of the territory that was under insurgent control in the enclave, it said on Friday.

The military statement said that after it secured the exit of thousands of civilians, authorities provided them with medical care and shelters.

“The army’s general command calls on the sons of our noble people to come out,” it added.

The outflow began on Thursday with thousands fleeing the southernmost of the three Ghouta pockets.

Since then an estimated 12,000-16,000 people have left eastern Ghouta, while fighting in the Afrin region has reportedly displaced more than 48,000, said Linda Tom, a spokeswoman for the UN humanitarian affairs office (OCHA) in Syria.

In Syria’s battered Ghouta enclave, the bodies pile up 

During campaigns to recover other areas, the Syrian government has taken territory by allowing rebel fighters and opposition activists safe passage out to insurgent-held areas at the Turkish border.

Russia has offered similar safe passage to rebels who leave eastern Ghouta, but so far they have refused.

The Kurdish-led civil authority of Afrin said Turkey had ramped up air and artillery strikes on the densely populated town this week, killing dozens of people in the past two days. 

In a statement, it said the main water supply was cut, and accused Ankara of trying to make residents leave.

“Till now, tens of thousands of civilians have been forced to flee, in fear of the death staring at them and their children,” it said. 

“The scale of the humanitarian tragedy has now exceeded the capacity of the administration.”

A spokeswoman for the UN human rights office said it had received “deeply alarming reports” of civilians being killed and injured in air strikes and shelling in Afrin, and of the Kurds preventing civilians from leaving.

President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey had “largely solved the Afrin issue”.

“We are nearing the end in Afrin,” he said. 

The foreign ministers of Turkey, Iran and Russia convened a meeting in the Kazakh capital Astana to discuss the situation in Syria. The three states last year agreed to contain the conflict on several fronts with “de-escalation zones”, while simultaneously pursuing own military objectives in Syria.

Turkey wants to crush the YPG which it views as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency in Turkey. 

The United States views the YPG as a valuable partner in its war against Islamic State in Syria.