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Clashes in Syria rebel bastion as regime pushes to free base

Middle East News
Fri, 05 Jan 2018

Beirut: Syrian regime forces battled Thursday to reach an encircled army base in rebel bastion Eastern Ghouta, as a monitor said over 40 civilians and soldiers were killed in two days of bombardments.

State television said "army units had launched an assault to break the siege" of the Armoured 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 Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, an alliance dominated by a former Al Qaeda affiliate, said the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

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 Al Assad's forces.

As government forces looked to gain ground rebel shelling of regime positions on the edge of Eastern Ghouta killed 14 soldiers, the Observatory said.

State news agency SANA also said a woman was killed and 22 people wounded when a rebel shell hit a district in Damascus's Old City.

That bloodshed came after Abdel Rahman said Russian and regime strikes on Wednesday claimed the lives of 29 civilians in Eastern Ghouta.

Twenty were killed in Russian air raids in the town of Misraba, while the remainder died in regime strikes and shelling in other areas.

Seven children and 11 women were among those killed, said the head of the war monitor, which relies on a network of sources inside Syria.

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.

A medical source at the hospital told AFP: "Among the wounded were two women in their 20s. One of them lost both eyes and the other lost one eye."

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 Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, but other larger rebel groups in Eastern Ghouta are part of it.

Last week 29 emergency medical cases were evacuated from the area under a deal between rebels and the regime, but the UN says hundreds more remain in critical condition.

The latest fighting there comes as regime troops backed up by Russian airpower battle rebels and jihadists on the edge of northwestern Idlib province, the only one still fully beyond government 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 defence ministry on Thursday said two servicemen were killed in a New Year's Eve mortar attack by Islamist militants on its Hmeimim airbase in Latakia province.

Moscow has declared its mission in Syria largely completed after a two-year intervention that has shifted the conflict firmly in Assad's favour.

Russia says it has carried out a partial withdrawal but it will still keep soldiers and bases in Syria.

The war in Syria has killed more than 340,000 people and displaced millions from their homes since it began in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

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