Govt forces take towns in Eastern Ghouta as civilians flee, seek shelter
DAMASCUS - The Syrian Army advanced on Saturday in the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta countryside of the capital Damascus, capturing a number of areas.
A military source said government forces took the towns of Otaya, Nashabiyeh and Herzama following battles with the rebels.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog said clashes between Syrian forces and an array of rebel groups have been ongoing in the eastern and southeastern parts of Eastern Ghouta, which, it said, is besieged by the Syrian army.
It said that the rebel-held region has been under an intense government offensive since Feb 25, and 65 Syrian soldiers have been killed in the area in the last week.
The watchdog and a local resident said on Sunday that hundreds of people are fleeing the fighting and seeking shelter in areas closer to the center of Eastern Ghouta.
The region has grabbed international attention since the military showdown started to gain momentum on Feb 18.
The United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2401 on Feb 24, which requires all parties in Syria to immediately cease clashes and provides a sustained humanitarian break for at least 30 days across Syria.
Two days later, the Russians demanded a daily humanitarian pause for five hours in Eastern Ghouta specifically.
Those initiatives have slightly reduced rebels mortar shelling on the capital and the Syrian airstrikes and bombardment of Eastern Ghouta.
During the five-hour-long truce, the situation becomes calm, but the military confrontation continues almost immediately afterward.
Five days into the humanitarian pause, only two children left Eastern Ghouta as well as a Pakistani couple through the designated humanitarian corridor in Wafidin area, adjacent to the city of Douma, which is under the control of the Islam Army rebels.
The Islam Army said the civilians evacuation from Eastern Ghouta wasn't part of the recent UN Security Council resolution, urging instead for the entry of relief aid to the area.
But the Russian-backed Syrian army is apparently determined to recapture the enclave, which constitutes the last remaining threat to the capital after the Syrian forces captured all the surroundings of the capital except Eastern Ghouta.
The United Kingdom formally asking the UN Human Rights Council to hold an "urgent debate" this week on the situation in the area.
Voting on the resolution was postponed until Monday after member states failed to agree on the final text.
Meanwhile, Turkish air strikes killed at least 36 pro-government fighters backing Kurdish militia in Syria's northwestern Kurdish enclave of Afrin on Saturday, a monitoring group said.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces alliance said the Turkish raids targeted pro-government positions, but gave no death toll.
The Observatory for Human Rights said the strikes on Kafr Janna were the third such raid on loyalist fighters in the enclave bordering Turkey in less than 48 hours.
They came after Turkish raids on other parts of the enclave killed 14 pro-regime fighters on Thursday and four more on Friday, the monitor said.
Turkish-led Syrian opposition fighters have advanced since Jan 20, when they launched an assault on Afrin, controlled by the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG.
The Syrian government deployed fighters to the enclave a month later after the Kurds appealed for help.
Ankara says the YPG is a "terrorist" extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has waged a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state.