Amid lull, Red Cross delivers aid to Syria's Ghouta

  • Amid lull, Red Cross delivers aid to Syria's Ghouta

Amid lull, Red Cross delivers aid to Syria's Ghouta

Syrian troops on Saturday cut off the largest town in Eastern Ghouta from the rest of the rebel-held enclave which is now split in three, a monitor said.

The situation in the militant-held region escalated last month after government forces launched an operation dubbed "Damascus Steel", in a bid to clear the region of militants.

The limited operation came as the powerful Jaish al-Islam said HTS fighters would be evacuated to the northern province of Idlib, in an arrangement struck following consultations with the United Nations and other worldwide players.

Syrian state television aired footage of a single bus carrying 13 "fighters" and family members out of the enclave through Al-Wafideen checkpoint, without giving their affiliation.

But the group represents only a small portion of the insurgent presence in the enclave, and both Jaish al-Islam and Failaq al-Rahman have said they are not negotiating a similar deal for themselves. Its decision to move the prisoners appears to be an attempt to nullify the government's justification for attacking the enclave to fight terrorists.

In other areas such as Aleppo, rebels have eventually surrendered terrain in return for safe passage to other opposition areas along with relatives and civilians loath to fall back under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's rule.

Ghouta has been besieged for years, but in the last two weeks, the Syrian army has retaken almost all the farmland in Eastern Ghouta under cover of near-ceaseless shelling and airstrikes, leaving only a dense sprawl of towns - about half the territory - still under insurgent control.

Medical charities operating in eastern Ghouta have reported several incidents in recent weeks of what they say was chlorine gas use in government bombardments, causing choking symptoms.

On Friday a United Nations convoy was able to successfully deliver aid to the area, after previous deliveries were halted by shelling. "So Ghouta will gain by finishing with these people".

Hundreds of thousands of residents are still thought to live in the Eastern Ghouta, seven years into the civil war.

The violence has continued despite a United Nations security council resolution demanding a 30-day ceasefire and the delivery of humanitarian aid "without delay". Damascus and Moscow accuse the rebels of preventing people from fleeing the fighting.

Early Friday, the air strikes stopped briefly, with the area seeing its calmest night in more than a week, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

The renewed artillery fire came as representatives of Damascus and businessmen pressed negotiations on a solution that would allow civilians or fighters to leave the enclave, the Observatory said. They said at least five people were killed in Friday's bombardment of the town of Jisreen. "This is what makes me so anguished", he said.