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Syrian government forces launch ground assault in Ghouta

Government soldiers seek to gain territory in spite of Russian plan for five-hour daily ceasefires
Russian and Syrian soldiers are seen outside Eastern Ghouta in Damascus (Reuters)

Syrian government forces launched a ground assault on the edge of the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta enclave on Wednesday, seeking to gain territory in spite of a Russian plan for five-hour daily ceasefires, a war monitor and sources on both sides said.

Hundreds of people have died in 11 days of bombing of Eastern Ghouta, a swathe of towns and farms outside Damascus that is the last major rebel-controlled area near the capital.

Wednesday's ground assault targeted the Hawsh al-Dawahra area at the eastern edge of the enclave.

The Observatory reported advances by the government forces in the area, describing it as the resumption of an assault that first began on 25 February. It said rebels had inflicted heavy losses on government forces.

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An official with one of the rebel groups in Eastern Ghouta said fighters were battling to repel an attempted incursion, and characterised the battle as "back and forth".

A commander in the military alliance that backs the government said an elite unit of the Syrian army, the Tiger Force, was taking part in the assault and advances had been made.

The onslaught has been one of the fiercest of Syria's civil war, now entering its eighth year.

The UN Security Council, including President Bashar al-Assad's strongest ally Russia, passed a resolution on Saturday calling for a 30-day countrywide ceasefire. But the measure has not taken effect, with Moscow and Damascus saying they are battling militant groups excluded from the truce.

Russia has instead called for daily five-hour local ceasefires to establish what it calls a humanitarian corridor so aid can enter the enclave and civilians and wounded can leave.

The first such truce took place on Tuesday but quickly collapsed when bombing and shelling resumed after a short lull.

There were no air strikes during Wednesday's five-hour ceasefire, but heavy bombardment resumed in the afternoon, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported. There has been no sign of aid deliveries to the besieged area.

President Vladimir Putin said that Russia had managed to evacuate "quite a big group" of civilians and that Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan had helped broker the evacuation. He did not say when the civilians had managed to leave.

The Observatory said it could not confirm the evacuation.

Moscow and Damascus have accused rebels of shelling the corridor to prevent people leaving. Rebels deny this, and say people will not depart Eastern Ghouta because they fear the government.

Meanwhile, Russia's top diplomat on Wednesday rejected all notion and evidence of the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons, rejecting them as "absurd claims" by enemies of Damascus bent on "anti-Syrian political engineering".

Sergei Lavrov's comments at the UN-sponsored Conference on Disarmament in Geneva came a day after the international chemical weapons watchdog, the OPCW, said it was launching an investigation into claims the Syrian government had dropped chlorine gas during its intense week-long bombardment of Eastern Ghouta.