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Syrian government launches assault on rebel-held Douma

by Reuters
Friday, 6 April 2018 16:57 GMT

(Updates death toll to 32)

By Tom Perry and Laila Bassam

BEIRUT, April 6 (Reuters) - Syrian Republican Guard forces pushed into the last rebel-held area of the eastern Ghouta near Damascus on Friday, state TV reported, where a war monitor said heavy air strikes killed at least 32 people including five children.

State TV footage showed clouds of dark smoke rising from the targeted area, the town of Douma, where the Jaish al-Islam rebel group is holding out after insurgents in other parts of eastern Ghouta accepted safe passage to other rebel areas.

The conquest of Douma would seal President Bashar al-Assad's biggest victory over the rebellion since 2016, and underline his unassailable position in the conflict that mushroomed out of protests against his rule seven years ago.

The military spokesman for Jaish al-Islam posted a photo on his Telegram messaging account showing him leaning over a map with the group's commander "inspecting fortification and reinforcement plans for the frontlines in Douma".

Rebel groups in other parts of eastern Ghouta have left for areas on the Turkish border in convoys of buses that have gone through government-held territory.

While several thousand people, including wounded Jaish al-Islam fighters, have left Douma for the north in recent days, the group has sought to remain in Douma as a local security force, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

That demand has been rejected.

A commander in the regional military alliance that backs Assad said Jaish al-Islam's only option was to leave for areas northeast of Aleppo. "The negotiations have ended with failure. As far as Douma is concerned, resolving it militarily is the solution," the commander told Reuters.

State TV stations said the rebels must release abducted soldiers and civilians they said the group was holding as "one of the conditions" for halting the assault.

Tens of thousands of people are estimated to be sheltering in Douma, the Observatory says. It said the air strikes were likely to have been carried out by Russian war planes.

State media said a child was killed and 15 civilians wounded in Jaish al-Islam shelling of residential areas of Damascus.

State TV, in an on-screen news flash, said Jaish al-Islam was obstructing a deal and had refused to released abductees it has been holding.

The group has consistently rejected the idea of leaving Douma for areas near the Turkish border, saying this amounts to a policy of forced population transfer by Assad.

Russian-backed Syrian government forces launched their offensive against eastern Ghouta in February. It has been one of the most ferocious attacks of the war, killing more than 1,600 civilians in rebel-held areas, the Observatory says. (Reporting by Tom Perry and Laila Bassam in Beirut, Kinda Makieh in Damascus; Writing by Tom Perry; editing by John Stonestreet, William Maclean and David Stamp)

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