Syrian government forces bombarded eastern Ghouta anew on Wednesday in an effort to slice the rebel enclave in two, intensifying a campaign to deal the opposition its biggest defeat since 2016.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said pro-Syrian government forces had managed to bring the strip of territory linking the north and south of what remains of rebel-held eastern Ghouta within firing range, effectively bisecting the densely populated region on the outskirts of Damascus.
There was no immediate confirmation of this from the rebels or Syrian government.
The Syrian government onslaught on eastern Ghouta, which began more than two weeks ago, has become one of the fiercest campaigns of a war now entering its eighth year, with bombardment killing hundreds of people.
Live footage broadcast by Syrian state TV from the outskirts of the town of Mesraba earlier on Wednesday showed enormous clouds of smoke rising into the sky. The sounds of explosions and jets could be heard.
A state TV correspondent said militant defenses in the town were being hit by “preparatory fire” in advance of a planned infantry assault. “Mesraba is under heavy attack today,” said Khalil Aybour, a member of an opposition council in Ghouta.
Capturing Mesraba would be a major step towards severing the northern half of Ghouta, including its biggest town Douma, from the southern part. Government forces have seized more than 50 percent of the territory so far.
On Wednesday pro-government forces advanced, taking the small town of Beit Sawa to Misraba’s south, a Hezbollah-run media unit said. The Observatory said this advance deeper into the center of the enclave enabled them to bring the remaining north-south link within firing range.
Civilians have been fleeing frontline areas into Douma and hiding in cellars, with aid workers saying many children had told them they had not seen daylight in 20 days. [L5N1QP5D5]
“It’s bad in the basement, but it’s better than the bombing,” Adnan, 30, a Douma resident who has been sheltering below ground with his wife and two-year-old daughter together with 10 other families, told Reuters by telephone.
The United Nations says 400,000 people are trapped in the towns and villages of the eastern Ghouta, under government siege for years and already running out of food and medicine before the assault. An aid convoy reached the area this week but government officials had stripped out most medical supplies.
The United Nations resident and humanitarian coordinator in Syria, Ali al-Za’tari, asked the government to commit to a ceasefire on Thursday to let in more aid.
AT LEAST 867 CIVILIANS KILLED
Russia, President Bashar al-Assad’s most powerful ally, has offered rebels safe passage out with their families and personal weapons. The proposal echoes previous agreements under which insurgents, in the face of military defeat, were permitted to withdraw to opposition-held areas along the Turkish border.