Syrians leave rebel-held Ghouta for second day

War enters eighth year having killed half a million people and driven over 11m from their homes

A man carries an elderly woman as hundreds of civilians, who were evacuated from eastern Ghouta, take buses to makeshift centres, on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, on Friday. Photograph: Youssef Badawi/EPA

A man carries an elderly woman as hundreds of civilians, who were evacuated from eastern Ghouta, take buses to makeshift centres, on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, on Friday. Photograph: Youssef Badawi/EPA

a
 

Thousands of civilians were fleeing from besieged enclaves on opposite ends of Syria on Friday as two major battles in the multisided war entered decisive phases, with hundreds of thousands of people trapped in the path of both assaults.

Air strikes killed scores of people in eastern Ghouta, a war monitor said, and weary residents streamed out on foot for a second day, as Russian-backed government forces pressed their campaign to capture the last big rebel bastion near Damascus.

On another front, Turkish and allied rebel forces shelled the northern Kurdish-held town of Afrin heavily, killing at least 27 people and forcing 2,500 people to flee, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.

The Kurdish YPG militia defending Afrin said it was battling the Turkish forces who tried to storm the town from the north. The two offensives, one backed by Russia and the other led by Turkey, have shown how Syrian factions and their foreign allies are aggressively reshaping the map of control after the defeat of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate last year.

Eighth year

The Syrian war entered its eighth year this week having killed half a million people and driven more than 11 million from their homes, including nearly 6 million who have fled abroad in one of the worst refugee crises of modern times.

The government launched its offensive on eastern Ghouta a month ago, and Turkey began its cross-border assault in Afrin in January. In both cases, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been trapped inside encircled pockets on the battlefield.

Backed by Russia and Iran, government forces have thrust deep into eastern Ghouta on the capital’s outskirts, splintering the rebel enclave into three separate zones. The United Nations believes up to 400,000 people have been trapped in the Ghouta’s satellite towns and farmland, short of food and medicine.

For the first time in the month since the government unleashed the Ghouta offensive, one of the deadliest of the war, residents are fleeing in their thousands, carrying children and belongings on foot to government positions.

An estimated 12,000-16,000 people had left eastern Ghouta in recent days, while fighting in the Afrin region had reportedly displaced more than 48,000, said Linda Tom, a spokeswoman for the UN humanitarian affairs office (OCHA) in Syria.

The Syrian army and allied forces have recaptured 70 per cent of the territory that was under insurgent control in the enclave, it said on Friday. The military statement said that after it secured the exit of thousands of civilians, authorities provided them with medical care and shelters.

Human shields

“The army’s general command calls on the sons of our noble people to come out,” it added. Moscow and Damascus accuse the rebels of having forced people to stay in harm’s way as human shields. The rebels deny this and say the government aims to depopulate opposition areas.

The observatory said air strikes in eastern Ghouta killed 80 people, including 14 children, in the towns of Kafr Batna, Saqba and Harasta, on Friday. Syrian state TV broadcast footage of men, women and children walking along a dirt road near the town of Hammouriyeh, many of them carrying bags, to leave rebel towns.

Some waved to the camera and said the factions had stopped them from going out. Russian news agencies reported that more than 4,000 people had come out on Friday.

Exodus

The Istanbul-based spokesman for Failaq al-Rahman, the rebel faction controlling the pocket that has seen the exodus, says the safety of civilians could not be guaranteed in government areas.

The mayor of the nearby army-held town of Adra, Jassem al-Mahmoud, said about 5,000 people were sheltering there so far and as many as 50,000 were expected, who would be guaranteed food and medical help.

The UN children’s fund Unicef said it had response plans in place to cope with 50,000 people leaving eastern Ghouta.

The outflow began on Thursday with thousands fleeing the southernmost of the three Ghouta pockets. Russia said more than 12,000 people left on Thursday. – Reuters

a