Advancing Syrian troops pile pressure on rebels in Ghouta

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Syrian troops have captured a major rebel stronghold east of the capital Damascus and taken large parts of another, squeezing insurgents and forcing thousands to flee to regions controlled by the government.

Troops have taken Kafr Batna and large parts of nearby Saqba, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and Oways al-Shami, of the Syrian Civil Defence.

The capture of Kafr Batna and parts of nearby Saqba is another blow to opposition fighters, who have lost more than 70% of the area known as eastern Ghouta since President Bashar Assad’s forces began a crushing offensive under the cover of air strikes on February 18.

The violence left nearly 1,400 people dead, more than 5,000 wounded and forced tens of thousands to seek shelter in areas under government control.

The intensity of the shelling and air strikes has made it almost impossible for ambulances to move and wounded people cannot reach clinics, said Hamza Hassan, a surgeon working at one of the hospitals in eastern Ghouta.

Syrian state news agency SANA said the army stepped up military operations in eastern Ghouta and inflicted “heavy losses on terrorist groups in personnel and military hardware”.

It said troops reached the centre of Kafr Batna and Saqba.

With the capture of Kafr Batna and parts of Saqba, rebels still control the towns of Arbeen, Zamalka, Ein Tarma and Jobar on the southern edge of eastern Ghouta.

Eastern Ghouta has been split into three parts – the largest rebel-held town of Douma to the north has been cut off from nearby Harasta, and both have been split off from the rest of the area.

“The world has betrayed us,” said Ahmad Khanshour, a resident of eastern Ghouta, referring to the international community that could not do much to stop the offensive.

“The world betrayed itself and the human values we all once shared.”

He added that some 300,000 people are still besieged in eastern Ghouta, left to choose between “dying under fire or surrendering and going to Assad’s jails and slaughterhouses”.

The observatory said 30 people were killed in a Saturday morning air strike on Zamalka that hit a group of people trying to flee into government-controlled areas.

The opposition’s Syrian Civil Defence said the air strike killed dozens and wounded scores, adding that paramedics are trying to help survivors.

Speaking about the capture of Kafr Batna, Mr al-Shami said people “fled in the streets, not knowing in which direction to go”.

He added that large numbers of people have now been squeezed into the small areas held by rebels in eastern Ghouta.

The violence came as thousands of people left eastern Ghouta and entered government-held parts of the region on Saturday, bringing to 47,000 the number of people who left the area over the past three days, according to Russia’s defence ministry.

Syrian government forces soldiers helping civilians who fled from fighting between the Syrian government forces and insurgents, near Hamouria in eastern Ghouta (SANA via AP)
Syrian government forces help civilians who fled from fighting near Hamouria in eastern Ghouta (SANA via AP)

Syrian state-run al-Ikhbariyah TV aired live footage showing hundreds of men, women and children carrying their belongings and marching into the town of Hamouria, which was recently captured by Syrian troops.

The station also showed a Syrian soldier meeting his mother and siblings for the first time in five years after they came out of eastern Ghouta. The soldier was seen kissing his mother, who was weeping.

Al-Ikhbariyah quoted an unnamed military official as saying 10,000 people left eastern Ghouta on Saturday alone.

Russia’s Major General Vladimir Zolotukhin was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying that some 3,000 people have been leaving every hour through a government-run humanitarian corridor monitored by the Russian military.

Maj Gen Zolotukhin is spokesman for the Russian centre for reconciliation of the warring parties in Syria.

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