BEIRUT/AMMAN: Syrian regime forces Thursday battled to reach troops trapped in rebel bastion Eastern Ghouta, as an activist group said at least 30 civilians died in Russian and government bombardments. State television said “army units had launched an assault to break the siege” of the Armored Vehicle Base where some 250 soldiers are believed to be cut off.
On the outskirts of Damascus, Eastern Ghouta is one of the last remaining opposition strongholds in Syria and has itself been under government siege since 2013, causing severe food and medicine shortages for up to 400,000 residents.
The regime base on the edge of the region was surrounded by rebels at the start of the week after an offensive that involved Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, an alliance dominated by a former Al-Qaeda affiliate, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Observatory head Rami Abdel-Rahman said “violent clashes were taking place” Thursday close to the base, the only one in Eastern Ghouta still held by President Bashar Assad’s forces.
Twenty were killed and more than 40 people wounded in Russian airstrikes in the Eastern Ghouta town of Misraba, while the remainder died in regime raids in other areas.
Seven children and 11 women were among those killed, said Abdel-Rahman, which relies on a network of sources inside Syria. At least 10 people were killed in aerial strikes in other nearby towns, the Observatory, rescuers and residents said.
Victims were taken to a hospital in Douma, where an AFP correspondent saw rescuers bringing in mostly women and children. Medical staff tried to revive a child who had been pulled from the rubble, but without success. A young girl among the wounded received stitches for a serious injury to her face.
Jets also pounded Harasta, on the western edge of the enclave, where rebels this week besieged and overran a major military base which residents say the army uses to pound residential areas.
The rebel assault aimed partly to relieve the pressure of the tightening siege.
Eastern Ghouta is one of four “de-escalation zones” agreed by Russia, as well as regime backer Iran and rebel supporter Turkey, to help halt fighting around Syria. The deal excludes HTS, but other larger rebel groups in Eastern Ghouta are part of it.
The latest fighting there comes as regime troops backed up by Russian airpower battle rebels and militants on the edge of northwestern Idlib province, the only region still fully beyond Assad’s control.
The government push near Idlib – also a “de-escalation zone” – follows two months of sporadic fighting that the United Nations says has displaced more than 60,000 people.
Meanwhile, Russia’s Defense Ministry Thursday said two servicemen were killed in a New Year’s Eve mortar attack by Islamist militants on its Hmeimim airbase in Latakia province, but denied media reports seven military planes were destroyed.