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Pro-regime troops have launched a large-scale attack on the rebel-held eastern region of Ghouta, near Damascus. After years under siege, about 400,000 civilians are trapped between between starvation and bombings.
New casualties in Ghouta have been reported on Wednesday, as Syrian and Russian forces continued their bombing and shelling of the rebel-held Damascus suburb. According to the latest estimates, almost 300 civilians were killed since the attack started late on Sunday.
At least 24 people were killed and around 200 wounded on Wednesday alone in a combination of airstrikes, rocket fire and shelling, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
Separately, Russia said its ceasefire monitoring center in Damascus has been hit by rebels firing shells from Ghouta. The strikes also targeted residential areas and hotels, Russia's defense ministry said, according to a report by the TASS news agency.
"There is significant damage and casualties among the civilian population," center representative Yuri Evtushenko said. "There are no causalities among Russian military personnel."
Rebels and analysts say the regime is preparing a major ground offensive to retake the rebel-held enclave of some 400,000 people, which is surrounded and has been under siege since 2013.
'Spiraling out of control'
Concern is mounting that the siege of eastern Ghouta could turn into a repeat of the battle for Aleppo, which was restored to government control in December 2016 after a brutal pro-regime onslaught.
Tens of thousands of people trapped in eastern Ghouta have gone months without basic food, medicine or supplies.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres reminded the warring parties that Eastern Ghouta has been designated a de-escalation zone by Russia, Iran, and Turkey.
"The secretary-general is deeply alarmed by the escalating situation in Eastern Ghouta and its devastating impact on civilians," said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
A wounded man is carried following an airstrike on the rebel-held besieged town of Arbin, on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus
The latest escalation in the fighting has left civilians trapped between starvation and bombings. At least seven hospitals have also been hit by Syrian or Russian airstrikes.
"The humanitarian situation of civilians in east Ghouta is spiraling out of control," said Panos Moumtzis, the UN regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis. "Many residents have little choice but to take shelter in basements and underground bunkers with their children."
"It's imperative to end this senseless human suffering," he added.
On Tuesday, UNICEF issued a blank statement on the suffering of children in Ghouta, saying it had run out of words.
"Do those inflicting the suffering still have words to justify their barbaric acts?" the statement asked.
No end in sight
Eastern Ghouta is one of four "de-escalation zones" drawn up by Russia, Iran and Turkey to lower violence in the country.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears bent on retaking the pocket of rebel territory so close to the capital.
For most of the civil war, the regime has preferred to besiege and starve eastern Ghouta, rather than engage in a frontal assault.
The Syrian opposition said they were seeking to talk to Russian officials, who may be able to pressure Damascus into halting the attack. Two rebel factions signed onto the truce deal last year, which doesn't include al Qaeda's Syria affiliate.
Russia and Damascus are using a jihadi presence in eastern Ghouta as a pretext to launch an offensive, rebels there said.
"We are trying to do whatever we can do by negotiations with the Russians themselves ... to interfere to stop these massacres," Syrian opposition representative Nasr al-Hariri told the DPA news agency.
"Now the situation in Ghouta is getting more complicated and more catastrophic without any response until this moment from the international community," said the official, whose Army of Islam rebel faction controls parts of the enclave.
Syrian state media said that rebels in eastern Ghouta had fired mortars at districts of Damascus, killing a child and wounding eight others.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Monday that Moscow and its allies could "deploy our experience of freeing Aleppo ... in the eastern Ghouta situation."
Lavrov blamed "armed provocations" by Nusra militants, formerly linked to al Qaeda, for current conditions in eastern Ghouta.
cw,av,dj/aw (AFP, Reuters, DPA)