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Eastern Ghouta exodus continues

March 16, 2018

Civilians are continuing to flee from the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says. Hundreds have died there in recent weeks.

People fleeing eastern Ghouta (picture-alliance/dpa/Uncredited/SANS/AP)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/SANS

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Friday that the Russian military and the Syrian government were extending a cease-fire in the rebel-held area of eastern Ghouta for as long as it took for all civilians to leave.

However, there was no sign that Syrian army attacks, backed by the Russian airstrikes, in eastern Ghouta actually stopped on Friday.

Lavrov made his comments at a meeting of the foreign ministers of Iran, Russia and Turkey in the Kazakh capital, Astana, where several rounds of talks on Syria have been held since January 2017.

Speaking at the outset of the talks, Lavrov said that "millions of Syrians" were "looking in the direction of Astana."

However, the negotiations held there, most of which have involved delegations from the Syrian government and opposition, have so far failed to bring any lasting peace to the country.

All three countries have stakes in Syria's more than seven-year-long conflict, which has its roots in peaceful protests against the Assad regime that were brutally put down by Syrian security forces.

Syria talks in Astana
The Turkish, Russian and Iranian foreign ministers have met in Astana several times beforeImage: Reuters/M. Kholdorbekov

Mass exodus

The Russian Defense Ministry said that 2,000 people had left the suburbs in eastern Ghouta by early morning on Friday, after tens of thousands fled on Thursday.

Syria's military, backed by Russian aerial support, stepped up its years-long siege of eastern Ghouta around a month ago, with opposition activists saying the campaign has killed more than 1,200 people, including some 250 children, and precipitated a humanitarian crisis.

Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are now believed to control more than 70 percent of the area.

Despite the cease-fire claimed by Lavrov, Russian airstrikes on Friday morning on the rebel-held village of Kafr Batna killed 31 civilians and wounded many others, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Observatory is an activist group linked with the Syrian opposition that is monitoring the conflict. 

Read more: Eastern Ghouta tragedy pits neighbors against each other

Civilians killed in Afrin

Elsewhere, Turkish shelling of the Kurdish-majority enclave of Afrin in northern Syria killed at least 18 civilians on Friday, the Observatory said.

The Observatory said five of those killed were children, and that there was fighting on the northern edge of the city. It said at least 245 civilians, including 41 children, had been killed so far amid an air and ground offensive by Turkey and Syrian Arab rebel proxies launched on January 20.

Turkish tank
Turkey has called its Afrin offensive 'Operation Olive Branch'Image: picture-alliance /AA/H. Al Homsi

Turkey has said it wants to rid its border region of the US-backed Kurdish militia YPG, which Ankara says is linked with the outlawed Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK). The PKK has been waging a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.

Turkish-led forces have now nearly fully encircled the city of Afrin, leaving just one road open for civilians to flee to areas controlled either by the Syrian regime or the YPG.

On Thursday, the Observatory said that more than 30,000 civilians had fled Afrin in 24 hours.

tj/ng (Reuters, AFP, AP)

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