Thousands flee E Ghouta | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 16, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, March 16, 2018

Thousands flee E Ghouta

Army captures key town as rebels withdraw; war enters its eighth year

Thousands of civilians poured out of Eastern Ghouta yesterday 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 yesterday 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.

egime 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 yesterday 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 yesterday, 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.

The Observatory said more than 12,000 people fled the enclave yesterday in "the largest displacement since the beginning of the assault on Ghouta."

The Russian military said as many as 13,000 people could leave Ghouta by the end of the day.

Yesterday, 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.

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.

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.

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