12 Mar 2018 - 21:27
Syrian forces press Ghouta advance despite calls to end 'bloodbath'
Douma, Syria, March 12, 2018 (AFP) - Syria's regime pressed its relentless offensive on Eastern Ghouta Monday as diplomats at the United Nations pushed for new efforts to end the "bloodbath" in the rebel enclave.
Pounding two towns with new bombardment, government troops advanced in several areas of the besieged enclave, as a monitor reported more than 350,000 now dead in Syria's seven-year civil war.
On another front in the conflict, hundreds were seen fleeing a Turkish-led advance in the northern area of Afrin, where a Kurdish-majority city is also under threat of being besieged.
Syria's civil conflict enters its eighth year this week with fighting in several areas, but the assault on Eastern Ghouta has been one of the most ferocious of the war.
Since February 18, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have retaken nearly 60 percent of the enclave, whittling down rebel territory to three isolated pockets.
Backed by Russia, the advance has battered Eastern Ghouta with air strikes, artillery and rocket fire, raising widespread international concern and prompting urgent calls for a ceasefire.
France's envoy to the United Nations, Francois Delattre, on Monday urged Moscow to put pressure on its ally to halt the offensive, saying: "Russia can stop the bloodbath."
The United States also presented a new draft resolution to the UN Security Council demanding a 30-day ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta.
US presents new UN draft
US Ambassador Nikki Haley told the council that a ceasefire resolution it adopted two weeks ago had failed and that the new resolution "provides no room for evasion".
Pro-regime forces advanced again in Ghouta on Monday, heavily bombing two rebel-controlled towns closest to the capital, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Air strikes and rocket fire slammed into the towns of Harasta and Arbin, the Britain-based monitor said, as the regime used the recently recaptured town of Medeira nearby as a launching pad for a ground assault.
In Harasta at least four civilians were killed in air strikes, the Observatory said.
Syrian state media also reported a government advance in Ghouta, saying the town of Efteris to the south had been seized.
The other two areas still in rebel hands are Douma, the region's biggest town in the north of the enclave, and the zone around Hammuriyeh and other towns to the south.
An AFP correspondent in Douma said the morning was relatively quiet, allowing civilians to venture out of bomb shelters to check on the destruction in their homes or gather food.
Residents were seen queueing at a butcher shop, whose owner had slaughtered a calf that he could fatten up no further because there was nothing left to feed it.
Syria's conflict broke out in March 2011 with peaceful protests against Assad, but a regime crackdown paved the way for a fully-fledged war.
At least 353,935 people have died since, including more than 106,000 civilians, the Observatory said on Monday, providing a new overall death toll for the conflict.
More than 19,800 children are among the dead, it said.
In the Ghouta offensive alone, at least 1,162 civilians have been killed, including 241 children, the Observatory said.
More than 35 civilians have also been killed in rebel fire on government-controlled zones in Damascus and its outskirts since the start of the Ghouta offensive, it says. Rebel mortar and rocket fire killed two civilians on Monday, according to state news agency SANA.
Even before the offensive began, rebel-held parts of Ghouta were facing a crippling government siege that made food and medicine hard to access.
Hundreds flee Afrin
Syrian troops have used siege tactics on several areas around the capital, sealing off rebel-held territory and pressing a military operation before securing an evacuation deal.
Syria's government was on Monday pursuing separate negotiation tracks over the three rebel-held pockets of Eastern Ghouta, according to the Observatory and sources involved.
The talks, in some cases involving Russian officials, were focused on local truces or potential evacuation deals for rebels and civilians.
Opposition forces have repeatedly denied holding talks with the regime and on Monday tensions erupted in the town of Kafr Batna, with rebels there reportedly shooting dead a civilian taking part in a protest calling for a deal.
Since the conflict broke out seven years ago, an array of world powers have become involved, including Turkey.
For weeks, Ankara and allied Syrian rebels have pursued an offensive against Afrin, a Kurdish-controlled region of northwest Syria.
Hundreds of residents were seen fleeing the city of Afrin on Monday, with the Observatory reporting more than 2,000 arriving in an area controlled by pro-regime forces.
Hundreds more were on the road, it said, after Turkish forces and their allies on Saturday arrived to within less than two kilometres (one mile) of the city, sparking fears it could be besieged.