Middle East

Fresh air raids hit Douma in eastern Ghouta as Syria talks collapse

Volunteers help civilians away from the site of airstrikes. Government bombs killed 40 civilians on Friday, including eight children (AFP)

Renewed bombing killed eight civilians in the rebel holdout town of Douma in eastern Ghouta on Saturday, a monitor said, a day after negotiations collapsed and airstrikes killed 40.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it could not confirm whether the strikes were carried out by Syrian government warplanes or those of its ally, Russia.

For a week the bombardment had subsided as Moscow pursued peace talks with Jaish al-Islam, the rebel faction holding the town.

But talks came to an abrupt halt and air strikes suddenly resumed on Friday afternoon, killing dozens of civilians.

The SOHR said at least 40 civilians were dead, including eight children, and even more were wounded.

More bombing raids slammed into the town on Saturday, the Britain-based Observatory and a civil defence worker said.

"The bombing still hasn't stopped. There are three warplanes in the sky and two helicopters," Firas al-Doumi, a rescue worker inside Douma, told AFP news agency on Saturday morning.

For the second day, barbaric air raids continue on #Douma city, more than 50 air strikes and heavy artillery shelling targeted the city since this morning @syriacivildefe teams work urgently to respond to the injured and evacuate them from the devastated areas. pic.twitter.com/nKmvExxIPv

— The White Helmets (@SyriaCivilDef) April 7, 2018

Syrian state television broadcast live footage of raids over Douma, showing billowing clouds of smoke over a devastated urban landscape and the state news agency SANA said rockets fired at Damascus from Douma on Saturday killed at least five civilians.

With Moscow's help, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has ousted his armed opponents from nearly all of easter Ghouta, their former stronghold on the edge of the capital.

Since 18 February, the governments offensive has killed more than 1,600 civilians and kept residents cowering in basements for weeks. A ground assault then sliced the area into three isolated pockets, each held by different rebel factions.

The regime has used a combination of fierce bombardment and two negotiated withdrawals to empty out 95 percent of the enclave but rebels are still entrenched in the largest town of Douma.

Assad is keen to recapture Ghouta to eliminate the opposition from the outskirts of Damascus and end years of rocket fire on the capital.

Withdrawl talks collapse

Under Russian-brokered deals, two rebel-held pockets of eastern Ghouta were evacuated last month that saw more than 46,000 rebels and civilians bussed to opposition-held Idlib province in the northwest.

Tens of thousands also fled into government-controlled territory through safe passages opened by Russia and Syrian troops.

Moscow stepped in to negotiate a deal for Douma, the third and final pocket where Jaish al-Islam had been angling for a reconciliation agreement that would allow them to stay as a police force.

All of a sudden, with no warning, the shelling starts. There were 20 strikes in 15 minutes

– Mohammed, medic, Douma

Following a preliminary accord announced by Russia on Sunday, nearly 3,000 fighters and civilians were evacuated from Douma to northern Syria.

But as talks dragged on, Syria and its Russian ally threatened Jaish al-Islam with a renewed military assault if they did not agree to withdraw.

It remains unclear exactly why the talks fell apart this week.

SANA said they faltered when Jaish al-Islam refused to release detainees they were holding in Douma, adding that the military assault would only stop if hostages are released.

Others have blamed internal rebel divisions over the withdrawal process. Top Jaish al-Islam political figure Mohammad Alloush on Friday blamed power struggles between the regime's allies.

A deal struck on Sunday saw 3,000 Jaish al-Islam fighters and civilians evacuated from Douma on buses (AFP)

"The talks were going well… Their only shared interests is the blood of civilians," he said.

The resumption of strikes stunned civilians. "All of a sudden, with no warning, the shelling starts. There were 20 strikes in 15 minutes," Mohammed, a medic, told AFP from Douma on Friday.

The wounded were being brought in with fractures and other injuries, and there had been three amputations on Friday alone, he said.

Syrian troops also carried out a ground operation Friday in the orchards surrounding Douma.

On Saturday, fresh artillery fire hit those fields, said the Observatory.

"The regime is trying to tighten the noose around Douma from the west, east, and south," said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

Original Article


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