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Wednesday 11 December 2019

More than 100 killed in Syria assault on Damascus suburb

Meanwhile, Syrian government forces have began entering the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, where Turkish soldiers are carrying out an offensive against the YPG.

Syria Afrin Conundrum
Syria Afrin Conundrum

By Bassem Mroue

Intense Syrian government shelling and air strikes on rebel-held Damascus suburbs have killed nearly 130 people in two days, marking the deadliest bombardment of the region in three years.

Retaliatory shells rained down on Damascus, killing at least eight people and causing panic among residents of the Syrian capital, the seat of President Bashar Assad’s power.

The violence in the capital and nearby areas came as scores of pro-government gunmen began entering the northern Kurdish enclave of Afrin – where Turkish forces are fighting Syrian Kurdish troops (the YPG) in a separate offensive.

Turkish troops shelled the areas shortly after the fighters entered the area, forcing journalists to flee. Turkish state media reported the pro-government forces then fell back to six miles from Afrin city.

Suburbs targeted by the Syrian government — scattered across an area known as eastern Ghouta — have been subjected to a weeks-long bombardment that has killed and wounded hundreds of people.

Opposition activists said government forces have brought in more reinforcements in recent days, suggesting a major assault is imminent to recapture the last main rebel stronghold near Damascus.

There has been heavy shelling in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, via AP)

The area is home to some 400,000 people as well as thousands of insurgents belonging to different factions. The most powerful is the ultraconservative Army of Islam and Failaq al-Rahman, with a small presence of al-Qaida-linked fighters.

Videos from the eastern suburbs showed paramedics pulling out the injured from under the rubble while others are seen frantically digging through the debris in the dark, in search of survivors.

The bombardment that killed nearly 100 people on Monday saw the use of warplanes, helicopter gunships and missiles as well as artillery in a major escalation of violence near Mr Assad’s seat of power.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it was the deadliest days in eastern Ghouta since 2015, adding that 20 children and 15 women were among those killed.

(Syrian Civil Defence White Helmets via AP)

The opposition-affiliated Syrian Civil Defence, also known as White Helmets, said the shelling and airstrikes killed 98 and that some people are still under the rubble. It said the dead included one of the rescue group’s members, Firas Jomaa.

Both the Observatory and the White Helmets reported more air strikes and shelling on Tuesday in eastern Ghouta as rebels pounded Damascus with mortar shells. The White Helmets reported 15 deaths on Tuesday while the Observatory said 23 people were killed.

The Observatory said the “crazy shelling” appears to be paving the way for a wide ground offensive on eastern Ghouta. If captured by government forces it would be another major victory for Mr Assad since the conflict began seven years ago.

Rebels retaliated by hitting some Damascus neighbourhoods with mortar shells, killing eight, including three children, and wounding 15 people, according to the state news agency SANA. On Tuesday morning, Damascus residents reported shelling of areas in the centre.

The UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, decried a recent upsurge in violence, expressing concerns that eastern Ghouta could fall victim to widespread bloodshed like that in northern Aleppo more than a year ago.

The UN children’s agency, Unicef, issued a one-page statement of protest against the killings and carried a headline, saying: “Do those inflicting the suffering still have words to justify their barbaric acts?”

The International Committee of the Red Cross also issued a statement saying that “this cannot go on”. It added that there had been “distressing reports” of dozens injured and killed every day in eastern Ghouta, with “families trapped, with no safe place to hide from shelling. Dozens of mortars in Damascus cause civilian casualties and spread fear. We cannot let history repeat itself.”

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