Skip to main content

Thousands flee Ghouta rebel enclave as Syrian army advances

Civilians flee the rebel-held enclave into government territory as the conflict enters its eighth year
A handout picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on 14 March 2018 shows Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers assisting evacuated civilians from the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta (AFP)

Thousands of civilians escaped Syria's rebel-held Eastern Ghouta into government-held territory on Thursday, AFP correspondents on both sides said, in the largest numbers since the government assault on the enclave began.

They were seen fleeing on foot, in cars and on motorcycles via the town of Hammuriyeh, where the Syrian army had opened a corridor after a late-night advance.

Up to 50 civilians were reported killed in the fighting and shelling of the rebel-held area as the government offensive continued, the Guardian reported.

Syrian state television broadcast footage from the town on Thursday and said army troops had brought out dozens of residents who had remained in their neighbourhood as it fell to the government. 

Women, children and elderly were seen gathered at a collection point, chanting pro-government slogans alongside Syrian troops.

A new convoy carried desperately needed food into Eastern Ghouta on Thursday, as Syria's war entered its eighth year.

More than 400,000 people have been killed since the conflict erupted on 15 March seven years ago with protests against President Bashar al-Assad.

The wounded are on the roads. We can't move them. The warplanes are targeting anything that moves

- Ismail al-Khateeb, Ghouta resident

Defying expectations, Assad has maintained his grip on power and his forces were on Thursday edging closer to securing the once-threatened capital with an assault on Eastern Ghouta.

Hunger-stricken residents in Ghouta's largest town received food aid on Thursday in a new aid convoy, said the International Committee of the Red Cross. 

Twenty-five trucks were carrying food parcels and flour bags for more than 26,000 people, ICRC's communication coordinator Pawel Krzysiek told AFP.

"This is just a little of what these families need," the ICRC said.

As volunteers were distributing food parcels from the trucks, mortar rounds hit nearby and sent aid workers scrambling for cover, an AFP correspondent said. They were able to resume delivery shortly after, with columns of smoke emerging in the cloudy sky overhead.

Eastern Ghouta has been suffering a devastating five-year siege imposed by government troops that has left its 400,000 residents struggling to find food and its hospitals crippled by shortages.

Thursday's aid operation came after two consecutive days of medical evacuations from Douma, which saw dozens of civilians bussed out to receive treatment in Damascus.  

Eastern Ghouta was designated in May 2017 a "de-escalation zone" - an area where violence is supposed to be tamped down to pave the way for humanitarian assistance and a nationwide truce.

Army advances

But since 18 February, Russian-backed government troops have pursued a ferocious air and ground campaign in Ghouta that has brought more than 60 percent of the one-time opposition bastion under government control.

The remaining rebel territory has been split into three isolated pockets.

Government forces have worked to shave off territory from each of those areas, and late on Wednesday they stormed a key town in the southern rebel-held zone.

Syrian troops broke into Hammuriyeh amid heavy bombardment, with an AFP correspondent there reporting non-stop air strikes and barrel bombs. 

The correspondent saw a man in the entrance of a building, crying over the bodies of his two dead children. Hours later, he too was killed in the bombardment.

A doctor in the area said rescue teams could not get to victims because of the intensity of the bombardment. 

"The wounded are on the roads. We can't move them. The warplanes are targeting anything that moves," Ismail al-Khateeb said late Wednesday.

On Thursday, fresh bombardment left at least three civilians dead in nearby towns in Ghouta, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor. 

Syrian government forces deploy in the captured town of Beit Sawa in the Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of Damascus (AFP)

That brought to 1,249 the total number of civilians - including 252 children - killed in the government's assault on Ghouta. 

The Britain-based Observatory said government troops were now in control of the eastern half of Hammuriyeh.

"This is the first time the regime has entered the town in five years," said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

The United Nations has made repeated demands for an immediate ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta, but they have gone unheeded. 

For the past seven years, international efforts to bring an end to the violence raging across Syria have consistently failed. 

The conflict has drawn in world powers, with Russia backing Assad and Turkey supporting an array of rebels in Syria's north against the government, Islamic State militants, and Kurds.

Ankara and allied Syrian factions have since 20 January been waging a deadly ground and air assault against a Kurdish-controlled enclave in northwest Syria.

They have seized more than 70 percent of the Afrin region, according to the Observatory, and are on the verge of surrounding the region's urban centre.

The city of Afrin is home to around 350,000 people and defended by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). 

Shells rained down on Afrin city late Wednesday, killing 10 civilians including four children.