Families trapped as new attacks pound Syrian towns
Close to 300 casualties recorded in three days of intense fighting between government and rebel forces
Beirut — Residents of Syria’s eastern Ghouta district said they were waiting their "turn to die" on Wednesday, amid one of the most intense bombardments of the war by pro-government forces on the besieged, rebel-held enclave near Damascus.
At least 10 people died in one village and more than 200 were injured early on Wednesday. At least 296 people have been killed in the district in the last three days, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.
Another 13 bodies, including five children, were recovered from the rubble of houses destroyed on Tuesday in the villages of Arbin and Saqba, the organisation reported.
Eastern Ghouta, a densely populated agricultural district on the Damascus outskirts, is the last major area near the capital still under rebel control.
Home to 400,000 people, it has been besieged by government forces for years.
A massive escalation in bombardment, including rocket fire, shelling, helicopter-dropped barrel bombs and air strikes since Sunday has become one of the deadliest of the Syrian civil war, now in its eighth year.
The UN has denounced the bombardment, which has struck hospitals and other civilian infrastructure, saying such attacks could be war crimes.
Pro-government forces fired hundreds of rockets and dropped barrel bombs from helicopters on the district’s towns and villages.
"We are waiting our turn to die," said Bilal Abu Salah, 22, whose wife is five months’ pregnant with their first child in the biggest eastern Ghouta town, Douma. They fear the terror of the bombardment will bring her into labour early, he said.
"Nearly all people living here live in shelters now. There are five or six families in one home. There is no food, no markets."
The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations, a group of foreign agencies that fund hospitals in opposition-held Syria, said eight medical facilities in eastern Ghouta had been attacked on Tuesday.
The Syrian government and its ally, Russia, which has backed President Bashar al-Assad with air power since 2015, say they do not target civilians. They also deny using the inaccurate explosive barrel bombs dropped from helicopters whose use has been condemned by the UN. A commander in the coalition fighting on behalf of Assad’s government told Reuters overnight the bombing aims to prevent the rebels from targeting the eastern neighbourhoods of Damascus with mortars.
It may be followed by a ground campaign.
"The offensive has not started yet. This is preliminary bombing," the commander said.
Rebels have also been firing mortars on the districts of Damascus near eastern Ghouta, wounding two people on Wednesday, state media rep-orted. Rebel mortars killed at least six people on Tuesday.
"Today, residential areas, Damascus hotels, as well as Russia’s Centre for Syrian Reconciliation, received massive bombardment by illegal armed groups from eastern Ghouta," Russia’s Defence Ministry said late on Tuesday.
Eastern Ghouta is one of a group of "de-escalation zones" under a diplomatic ceasefire initiative agreed by Assad’s allies Russia and Iran with Turkey, which has backed the rebels. But a rebel group formerly affiliated with al-Qaeda is not included in the truces and it has a small presence there.
Conditions in the eastern Ghouta district, besieged since 2013, had increasingly alarmed aid agencies even before the latest assault, as shortages of food, medicine and other basic necessities caused suffering and illness.