Syria Regime Sends Hundreds of Reinforcements to Ghouta
Syria's regime sent reinforcements to Eastern Ghouta on Wednesday, tightening the noose around the shrinking rebel enclave as the U.N. Security Council met to discuss the escalating violence.
The blistering onslaught has prompted outrage against the regime, with the United Nations' human rights chief accusing the government of orchestrating an "apocalypse" in Syria.
The Russia-backed Syrian army and allied militia began a campaign on February 18 to retake the last opposition bastion near Damascus with devastating aerial bombing.
They launched a ground offensive a week later and have since taken more than 40 percent of the enclave in an assault that has killed more than 800 civilians.
Heavy air strikes battered several key towns in the zone on Wednesday, as Syria's government dispatched hundreds of pro-government militiamen to the front.
"At least 700 Afghan, Palestinian, and Syrian loyalist militiamen came from Aleppo and were sent late Tuesday to Ghouta," said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Britain-based war monitor said the reinforcements were deployed to two battlefronts on the western side of the enclave.
Government troops in military vehicles were seen on Wednesday patrolling al-Mohammadiyeh, an agricultural zone in the southern part of Ghouta recently retaken by the regime.
Across some green farmland, columns of thick smoke rose from an urban skyline.
Government troops on Wednesday seized the town of Beit Sawa and were within firing range of another, Misraba. They had also taken up positions at the edges of Jisreen and Hammuriyeh.
Wednesday's bombardment left at least 12 civilians dead including one child, the Observatory said, bringing the total toll in more than two weeks of bombing to more than 810 civilians, including 179 children.
- 'Apocalypse' in Syria -The bombardment has continued despite a one-month ceasefire demanded by the UN Security Council more than a week ago.
The council met behind closed doors on Wednesday to discuss the failed truce, after France and Britain requested urgent talks.
Swedish Ambassador Olof Skoog, who negotiated the ceasefire resolution along with Kuwait, told reporters that implementation of the truce remains "totally and completely inadequate."
U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said the Syrian regime and its foreign allies were already planning their next "apocalypse."
"This month, it is Eastern Ghouta which is, in the words of the Secretary General, hell on earth; next month or the month after, it will be somewhere else where people face an apocalypse -- an apocalypse intended, planned and executed by individuals within the government, apparently with the full backing of some of their foreign supporters," said Hussein.
Eastern Ghouta's roughly 400,000 residents have lived under government siege since 2013, facing severe shortages of food and medicines even before the latest offensive began.
Forty-six aid trucks entered the area on Monday for the first time since the offensive, but had to cut short their deliveries and leave due to heavy bombardment.
Nearly half of the food aid could not be delivered and Syrian authorities removed some medical and health supplies from the trucks, the U.N. said.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged all warring sides to allow aid trucks to return for a planned second delivery to the enclave's main town of Douma on Thursday.
Linda Tom, spokesperson for the U.N.'s humanitarian coordination office OCHA in Syria, said the aid would aim to reach 70,000 people in Douma and would include medical supplies not allowed in Monday's delivery.
- Rebels deny talks with Russia -
Inside Eastern Ghouta on Wednesday, AFP correspondents heard warplanes carrying out a barrage of strikes on the battleground towns.
Residents in Douma were driving frantically through the streets to escape from bombing zones, with cars brushing by each other in close calls.
Wednesday's raids came despite a daily "humanitarian pause" announced by Russia last week that is meant to bring calm to Eastern Ghouta between 9:00 am (0700 GMT) and 2:00 pm each day.
During that pause, Moscow said, it would guarantee safe passage to civilians and rebels wishing to flee the enclave.
No Syrian civilians are known to have used the "humanitarian corridor."
The two main rebel groups in Eastern Ghouta -- Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman -- deny the exit routes or the pauses have been coordinated with them.
"There is no communication with the Russians, directly or indirectly," said Wael Alwan, spokesman for Faylaq al-Rahman.
More than 340,000 people have been killed and millions displaced in Syria since the civil war started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.
Most Western countries have cut off diplomatic ties with Syria, but some of their officials have continued to make trips to Damascus.
On Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman condemned a visit by six members of the far-right AfD party to Syria, which has pushed a bid for Berlin to start sending refugees back to the war-ravaged country.