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World & Nation

Thousands flee Syrian towns as government forces unleash furious attack

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Syrian civilians flee rebel-held eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus.
(Louai Beshara / AFP/Getty Images)

Thousands of civilians streamed out of two besieged enclaves on opposite sides of Syria on Thursday, crossing on foot and in pickup trucks and tractors to safety after suffering weeks of shelling and bombardment from Turkish and Syrian government forces.

At least 10,000 men, women and children emerged from Hamouria and nearby opposition towns near the Syrian capital, carrying their belongings in suitcases and bags, as government forces pushed rebels out of the town with a punishing aerial and ground campaign, according to state-run Syrian television and a war monitoring group.

A shepherd brought his herd of sheep and cattle with him through the corridor set up by government forces.

Thousands more fled Afrin, near the Turkish border, after Turkish forces tightened their siege around the Kurdish-run town, according to a pro-government station and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

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Together, the two exoduses on the seventh anniversary of the country’s civil war underscore the intractability of a conflict that has invited world powers to stake out their spheres of influence in the fragmented country.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, addressing the European Parliament on Thursday, said he would not halt his campaign against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, known as the YPG, which controls Afrin.

“We won’t leave until our job is done,” he said. Ankara says the YPG is connected to a Kurdish insurgency inside its own borders and sees the militia as a national security threat.

The exodus from Hamouria was the largest yet seen from the greater, rebel-held eastern Ghouta enclave on the outskirts of Damascus since the government backed by Russian air power launched its assault on the region more than three weeks ago. More than 1,200 civilians have been killed in airstrikes and rocket fire.

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A Syrian man draped in the national flag walks with a girl carrying a poster of Syrian President Bashar Assad during an exodus from rebel-held eastern Ghouta.
(Louai Beshara / AFP/Getty Images )

State-run Al Ihkbariya said civilians would be taken to a center for identification and relief. The pro-government Al Mayadeen TV showed buses waiting to pick up those leaving.

Men interviewed by state TV reporters heaped praise on the army and President Bashar Assad and said armed groups had humiliated them and held them against their will in eastern Ghouta. The government and rebels have traded accusations over who is blocking civilians from leaving.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the number of those who had left eastern Ghouta at over 12,000. It also said government forces targeted a column of civilians fleeing Hamouria before dawn Thursday, wounding several people, and that 26 people were killed in government strikes on the town on Wednesday.

The United Nations estimates that close to 400,000 people are trapped inside the government’s siege of eastern Ghouta. They are running out of room to flee as government forces close in on the space.

“People are carrying their stuff and just walking out of Hamouriya,” said a woman reached by a messaging service. She asked for anonymity out of fear for her safety.

“People are going crazy, we don’t know what awaits us,” she said.

Separately, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations delivered aid for over 26,000 people to another location in eastern Ghouta, the town of Douma, the ICRC said.

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According to the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, the organization’s first responders have been unable to reach the wounded in several other towns in eastern Ghouta because of the intensity of the government’s assault. It said one of its rescue workers was killed in an airstrike on the town of Hazeh.

“They are burning Ghouta to the ground,” said Anas Dimashqi, a media activist and resident of Kafr Batna, a town also targeted in intense airstrikes Thursday.

Dimashqi, the White Helmets and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that government and Russian aircraft were using napalm-like incendiary weapons to spread fires in the towns.

Government and Russian forces also targeted a column of civilians trying to flee Hamouria early Thursday, according to the activists and the Syrian Observatory. At least 26 civilians were killed near Hamouria on Wednesday, the Syrian Observatory said earlier.

The Syrian government, backed by its allies Iran and Russia, is determined to retake control of the onetime farming region just outside Damascus, after seven years of war and bloodletting that has killed as many as 500,000 people and displaced millions.

More than 1,200 people have been killed since pro-government forces launched their assault on eastern Ghouta more than three weeks ago.

Damascus and Moscow have ignored a Feb. 25 U.N. Security Council resolution demanding a cease-fire for the entire country.

The eastern Ghouta region was one of the hubs of the uprising against Assad in 2011 and was quickly targeted for siege, mass arrests and extrajudicial killings by security forces.

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Government forces cleaved the region into two parts earlier this week, and isolated the area’s largest town, Douma, from the rest of the suburbs.

Douma has seen four days of relative calm, said local media activist Youssef Boustani.

The 25-truck aid convoy organized by the international Red Cross, the Syrian Red Crescent and the United Nations crossed into eastern Ghouta on Thursday, according to the ICRC, and was expected to deliver aid later in the day.

Damascus routinely blocks the aid agencies from delivering relief to opposition-held areas in the country.

The Russian military, meanwhile, said it had extended a “humanitarian pause” to operations targeting Douma through Thursday and Friday. It claimed the pause has allowed growing numbers of civilians to reach safety.

Maj. Gen. Yuri Yevtushenko was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that 131 people left the area through the humanitarian corridor on Wednesday. Maj. Gen. Vladimir Zolotukhin said some 100 people are expected to be evacuated on Thursday.


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