Map of eastern Ghouta, Syria.; 2c x 2 1/2 inches; 96.3 mm x 63 mm;

Syrian troops advance in rebel-held region near capital

March 04, 2018 - 10:55 am

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops and allied militias have captured a number of villages and towns in a rebel-held region near the capital, in the largest advance since a wide-scale offensive began last month, state media and activists reported Sunday.

Syria's Central Military Media said government forces captured at least six villages and towns along the edge of eastern Ghouta in the advance that began late Saturday. The Central Military Media later said the troops continued their movement, reaching the outskirts of Mesraba, in central Ghouta.

The military advances come amid reports of wide-scale internal displacement as civilians flee government forces.

A reporter from state-run Al-Ikhbariyah TV accompanied the troops and broadcast from Nashabiyah, a village on the southeastern edge of eastern Ghouta. The reporter said the Syrian troops had crossed a "moat" and seized around 12 square kilometers (4.6 square miles). The advance was backed by intense shelling and airstrikes.

Rebel factions said they launched a counteroffensive Sunday, sending fighters behind government lines in a series of attacks. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels regained control of at least one town and fighting continued.

The Observatory and the Syrian Civil Defense said civilians had fled their homes because of the advancing troops, with many of them taking cover in underground shelters. "It is a scorched-earth policy," said Ghouta-based activist Nour Adam. "People are moving out because of the relentless bombing."

Eastern Ghouta, home to some 400,000 people, has been under a crippling siege and daily bombardment for months. More than 600 civilians have been killed in the last two weeks alone.

Hamza Beriqdar, spokesman of the main rebel faction in Ghouta called the Army of Islam, said in an audio recording shared on social media that the opposition fighters had to retreat from some areas in eastern Ghouta amid a hail of fire from artillery shelling, airstrikes and helicopter attacks, also calling it a "scorched earth policy." He said the rebels are regrouping and will continue to fight, and he called on civilians in Ghouta not to lose faith or criticize rebel fighters to keep a unified front and maintain morale.

Meanwhile, no civilians have left Ghouta through a humanitarian corridor set up by Russia and the Syrian government nearly a week ago.

Russia has accused the rebels of preventing civilians from leaving, which insurgents have denied. The rebels say the humanitarian corridor is part of government efforts to forcibly displace the population, and have called on government forces to implement a full cease-fire adopted by the U.N. Security Council.

Al-Ikhbariya TV quoted an unnamed military official as saying the latest operation came in response to the shelling of Damascus and surrounding area by rebels. The official said preparations are underway to deliver food to civilians in the besieged area.

The U.N. has said a daily five-hour humanitarian pause ordered by Russia is not enough time to deliver aid. Ghouta has not had any aid delivered since November, and Eastern Ghouta has been besieged by government forces since 2013.

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