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Syrian forces blast Eastern Ghouta, may soon launch ground assault

More than 260 rockets, heavy artillery fire and air strikes slammed into several towns in Eastern Ghouta on Sunday
Syrian family flees amid air strikes in Eastern Ghouta earlier this month (AFP)

Syrian forces pounded the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus on Sunday in preparation for a possible assault, a monitor said, as residents of the capital braced for retaliatory shelling.

More than 260 rockets, heavy artillery fire and air strikes slammed into several towns in Eastern Ghouta, he told AFP.

The bombardment left at least 14 civilians dead, including four children, and dozens more people wounded. 

President Bashar al-Assad has in recent days been sending reinforcements from across the country to the edge of Eastern Ghouta, besieged by government troops since 2013.

Green light

"The reinforcements are complete; the attack is just waiting for a green light," said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The last rebel bastion near Damascus, Eastern Ghouta is held by two main Islamist factions, Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman, although militants also have a foothold there.

The government is keen to regain control of the area to halt the deadly salvo of rockets and mortars that those factions have fired on the capital.

An AFP correspondent in Damascus said six rockets hit the capital on Sunday. 

Residents were already starting to pack bags and rent rooms outside the city in anticipation of an operation now seen as imminent.

One of them said he was planning to temporarily move his parents out of their home in the capital's east, which is regularly hit in rebel shelling.

"I'd rather drop my parents off in our village in Wadih al-Qalaa," in the government-controlled province of Latakia, said 29-year-old Karim.

Evacuating family

"They'll be safer there, and I can bring them back as soon as it's calm in their neighbourhood," he said.

According to the Observatory, the government began dispatching military reinforcements to Eastern Ghouta on 5 February, the same day it launched a fierce five-day bombing campaign on the region.

Air strikes have left about 250 civilians dead, with retaliatory rocket fire on Damascus killing about 20, the monitor said.

Abdel Rahman said negotiations with Russian involvement were taking place for the evacuation of militant faction Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), whose footprint in Ghouta is limited but includes areas directly adjacent to Damascus.

The Syrian daily Al-Watan, which is close to the government, also reported the talks on Sunday.

But rebels have denied the claim, with top Jaish al-Islam figure Mohammad Alloush telling AFP there were no negotiations.

"We reserve our legitimate right to defend ourselves. We opened the door for a political solution and participated in negotiations to stop the bloodshed in Syria, but the other side breached these agreements and broke every ceasefire," he said.

Faylaq al-Rahman spokesman Wael Alwan also told AFP his group had "no correspondence or negotiations with the criminal regime or its allies".

The government has already cleared swathes of territory around Damascus through local deals, whereby besieged anti-government forces were evacuated and bussed to other rebel-dominated areas.

No deal yet

If a deal is struck for Eastern Ghouta, HTS militants would likely be sent to the northwestern province of Idlib, which is almost completely out of government control.

But time appeared to be running out for an agreement on Sunday and government forces, who have been receiving aerial backing from Russia, seemed to be on the brink of a major offensive.

"The collapse of the negotiations will signal the start of an assault," Abdel Rahman said.

About 400,000 people still live under siege in Eastern Ghouta, including hundreds in urgent need of medical care outside the enclave. 

The United Nations has called for a month-long ceasefire across Syria to allow for aid and medical evacuations, to no avail.

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