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Syrian army pounds rebel areas near Damascus after Russian-brokered truce

Syrian army elite 4th Division has been trying unsuccessfully to storm Jobar; residents say it is retaliating with heavy losses for attackers
Smoke billows from recent air strike by Syrian government forces in rebel-held parts of Jobar district, on eastern outskirts of Damascus (AFP)
By Reuters

Syrian jets and artillery struck rebel-held eastern Damascus suburbs on Saturday a day after a Russia-sponsored ceasefire with a rebel group agreed to a halt of fighting in the last opposition enclave in the capital, rebels and witnesses said.

The Russian defence ministry said on Friday it had reached a ceasefire that took effect at 18:00 GMT with Failaq al-Rahman, the main Free Syrian Army (FSA) group fending off a two-month widescale Syrian army offensive in Jobar district and nearby town of Ain Tarma.

A spokesman for Failaq al-Rahman said both Jobar, which lies 2km east of the Old City wall, and nearby Ain Tarma on the edge of Eastern Ghouta witnessed army strikes and shelling soon after the ceasefire went into effect. "After the first few hours ... there were many violations, at midnight they dropped barrel bombs and from morning there have been strikes across Ghouta," Wael Alwan, spokesman for the group, said.

At least five civilians were killed in the towns of Hamouriya and Zalamka, and fighters said there were several cases of suffocation from rockets filled with chlorine that were fired at the front lines of Jobar and Ain Terma, he added.

The Syrian army elite 4th Division has been trying unsuccessfully to storm Jobar, and residents say the army has retaliated for its heavy losses by shelling residential areas, leaving scores dead and wounded since the campaign was launched.

Outnumbered and outgunned, local rebels fortified in elaborate tunnels and deploying ambushes have repelled repeated attempts to storm their stronghold, inflicting dozens of losses on the army since the campaign began.

Moscow said on Friday that the ceasefire meant an earlier one announced last month in Eastern Ghouta now included all the moderate opposition groups in the main rebel stronghold that stretches from eastern to northeastern suburbs of Damascus.

The army has not commented on the latest Russian agreement with Failaq al-Rahman, which it considers a terrorist group that threatens the capital. It says, however, it abides by truces Moscow has brokered.

Many fighters welcomed the ceasefire to help alleviate the plight of civilians most hurt by aerial strikes but remain deeply sceptical about Russia's readiness to get the Syrian army to stick to the terms of a cessation of fighting in several de-escalation zones that Russia has already announced

Moscow had already began to deploy military police in several areas across Syria, such as in southwestern Syria, where "de-escalation" zones had been announced.

"This shows the lack of seriousness by the Russians to put pressure on the regime," Alwan said.

Failaq al-Rahman said the Syrian army bombardment appeared to be an attempt to wreck a ceasefire deal whose main points included deploying Russian military police along the frontline, the release of detainees and allowing humanitarian goods into besieged Eastern Ghouta.

"It seems the regime wants to take advantage of the opportunity to take revenge for its big losses during their many attempts to storm Ghouta before the Russian military police enter to disengage the forces," Alwan told Reuters.

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