Syrian troops split rebel-held enclave

The Associated PressBEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces seized vast swaths of territory including farmland in the opposition-held suburbs of Damascus on Wednesday, effectively dividing the besieged enclave in two and further squeezing rebels and tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside, state media and a war monitor reported.

The government, determined to wrest the eastern Ghouta suburbs from the control of rebels after seven years of war, has resorted to extreme levels of shelling and bombardment to clear the way for its troops to advance on the ground. Hundreds have been killed in the past two weeks, including dozens reported Wednesday.

Doctors and residents reported intense shelling and cases of suffocation and difficulty breathing, accusing the government of using chlorine gas Wednesday night. Hamza Hassan, a surgeon working at one of the hospitals in eastern Ghouta, said that staff was overwhelmed with chlorine odor and that he had treated 29 children with difficulties breathing.

Such reports, which have been recurrent in the past weeks, could not be independently confirmed. The government has repeatedly denied using chlorine gas.

Earlier on Wednesday, the state-affiliated al-Ikhbariya TV station broadcast live shots from the region, showing dense columns of smoke rising above the town as explosions and rockets could be heard flying overhead. Syria’s Central Military Media said troops took control of the town of Beit Sawa and most of Misraba, both rebel-held communities in the heart of the enclave.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that by nightfall, Syrian government troops and allied militias had seized half of the territory held by rebels in eastern Ghouta and split the enclave in two halves — a north and southern part.

Children pulled from rubble

By slicing the territory, the Syrian government succeeds in further squeezing rebels, making it more difficult for them to continue to hang on to the territory.

Dramatic videos released by the opposition’s Syrian Civil Defense on Wednesday showed rescuers digging away hard-packed rubble to rescue a dust-covered little boy and a baby girl in the town of Arbeen. The Britain-based Observatory, which monitors the war through a network of activists on the ground, said more than 50 people were killed in the bombardment Wednesday.

In Geneva, U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein denounced what he said were attempts by Syria’s government to justify indiscriminate, brutal attacks on hundreds of thousands of civilians by the need to combat a few hundred fighters in eastern Ghouta, calling it “legally and morally unsustainable.”

“When you are prepared to kill your own people, lying is easy too. Claims by the government of Syria that it is taking every measure to protect its civilian population are frankly ridiculous,” he said.

Civilians are not safe anywhere in eastern Ghouta, and aid workers who entered briefly on Monday said some residents hadn’t seen sunlight for two weeks because they were sheltering underground.

At least 800 civilians have been killed since the offensive started Feb. 18, according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights monitoring group. Russia’s military by its own admission is playing a key role supporting the assault.

Russia’s military announced Monday it was offering safe passage for rebels and their families out of eastern Ghouta, where some 400,000 people have been trapped under a relentless government campaign of shelling and airstrikes.

Rebel spokesman Wael Olwan dismissed the offer on Tuesday, saying it was “psychological warfare.”

Olwan said Wednesday that rebels had plugged their defensive lines after they crumbled in the early days of the assault.

The opposition generally rejects evacuation agreements, saying they amount to demographic engineering — a tactic through which the government forcibly displaces its opponents.

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres has urged all parties to abide by a 30-day ceasefire ordered by the Security Council on Feb. 24 to allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians in desperate need. A rare humanitarian aid convoy made it to eastern Ghouta on Monday but was forced to cut short its mission amid severe bombardment by the government. It was not clear whether another convoy, planned for Thursday, would go through. Aid agencies said they were negotiating security guarantees ahead of the mission.Speech

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