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March 14, 2018

Sick and injured start leaving Syria’s besieged Ghouta


March 14, 2018

BEIRUT/ANKARA: Sick and injured civilians left a rebel enclave in Syria´s eastern Ghouta on Tuesday under the first medical evacuation since one of the deadliest assaults of the seven-year war began nearly a month ago.

In another sign of success in the government´s mission to retake all rebel-held territory near the capital, the army also evacuated hundreds of fighters and their families from a separate small rebel-held pocket south of Damascus.

In the north of the country, on another main front, Turkey´s military said it had encircled the town of Afrin, a big advance in its offensive against Kurdish fighters. Government forces also pounded a rebel-held area in the south for a second straight day, potentially reopening yet another front. The developments show how the map of control in Syria has been changing in recent weeks, with Turkey and Russia both pressing their advantages since the self-proclaimed caliphate of the Islamic State jihadist group largely collapsed last year.

International attention has been focused in recent weeks mainly on the plight of civilians in eastern Ghouta, where the United Nations believes 400,000 people have been trapped under punishing bombardment, deprived of food and medicine.

Women carrying infants, men hobbling on crutches and an old man in a wheelchair waited at a school nearby, along with dozens who exited through the al-Wafideen crossing, a witness said. During the army´s offensive, more than 1,100 civilians have died, the UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs says.

President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces have recaptured most towns and cities in Syria´s heavily populated west, has vowed to reassert his control over every inch of the country. The government assault on eastern Ghouta has become one of the bloodiest of the war, with rebels on course for their worst defeat since the battle of Aleppo in 2016.

The UN Security Council has demanded a 30-day ceasefire, but Moscow and Damascus say it does not apply to banned terrorist groups in Ghouta. They have offered to evacuate civilians and rebels who agree to withdraw from the area, but so far the main insurgent groups have said they intend to stay and fight to the end.

The government tactic of offering safe passage to rebels who agree to surrender territory played out on Tuesday nearby in al-Qadam, south of the capital, one of the few areas near Damascus apart from eastern Ghouta still in insurgent hands.

Military Media, a news outlet controlled by Lebanon´s Hezbollah group allied to Damascus, said buses had transported around 300 fighters from the Ajnad al-Sham group and their families to rebel-held Idlib province in the north. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said hundreds of fighters had left on buses over the past 24 hours. Al-Qadam is surrounded by government-held territory on one side and Islamic State-controlled neighbourhoods on the other.

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