Syrian government forces have advanced on the besieged rebel enclave of eastern Ghouta near Damascus. Western leaders have decried the Syrian regime for the appalling humanitarian situation in the region.
Syrian regime forces find themselves within three kilometers (two miles) of Douma, the largest town in the rebel enclave of eastern Ghouta, after recapturing large pockets of territory in the region.
Britain-based monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government forces now control 25 percent of the area after ground forces — including the army's elite Tiger Force — attacked the eastern edge of the district. The latest advance, which began on Saturday, comes despite a United Nations cease-fire resolution last weekend and a Russian-backed series of daily humanitarian pauses.
A government source said on Sunday that regime forces had seized a number of districts including Al-Nashabiyeh and Otaya, and had "eradicated terrorist groups" on the eastern outskirts of Damascus.
The Observatory said that fresh clashes between military forces and the Jaish al-Islam rebel group on Sunday had killed at least 12 regime fighters.
The Syrian army confirmed later that it had killed "large numbers of terrorists" as it advanced on several fronts, retaking control of towns and land in the insurgent-held enclave.
Widespread destruction reported
The Jaish al-Islam rebel group admitted its fighters had withdrawn from positions in two areas due to intense bombardment. In a statement, it accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia of waging a "scorched earth" campaign.
Regime forces have advanced steadily since Thursday, the monitor said, recapturing four areas in the east and southeast of the enclave as well as two air bases.
Eastern Ghouta, which has been surrounded by Assad's forces since May 2013, is the last area near the capital, Damascus, held by rebels seeking to oust him.
The area has come under several weeks of intense aerial and artillery bombardment, which has killed more than 640 people — including over 150 children — since February 18. The enclave's estimated 400,000 residents remain trapped, amid shortages of vital supplies, including food and medicine.
During an emergency meeting on Friday, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that recent events in eastern Ghouta likely included "war crimes and potentially crimes against humanity."
He warned that the perpetrators of such crimes should know they were being identified and that dossiers were being built for future prosecutions.
Matter of time
Several analysts think the enclave will eventually fall to the much more heavily armed government side, which has recaptured many other areas of the war-ravaged country using the same military tactics.
A 30-day nationwide cease-fire, demanded last week by the UN Security Council, has failed to take effect. Russia, which backs the Syrian regime in the nearly seven-year conflict, has instead implemented daily, five-hour "humanitarian" pauses in the area, but claims that Syrian rebel groups have been firing at a corridor set up for evacuation, preventing civilians from leaving.
UN trucks loaded with desperately needed aid remain unable to enter the area due to the continued fighting. However, officials hope to deliver aid to some 70,000 people in the stricken region beginning Monday, after reportedly receiving approval to move in from the Syrian government. The first aid convoy, which consists of 46 trucks, is slated to enter Douma on Monday morning, led by Ali al-Za'atri, the UN's resident humanitarian coordinator in Syria.
Renewed cease-fire call
Western leaders on Sunday renewed calls for an immediate ceasefire and decried the Syrian regime and its key allies, Russia and Iran, for the devastating humanitarian crisis in the region.
French President Emmanuel Macron urged his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani to put the "necessary pressure" on Assad to halt the "indiscriminate" attacks on civilians in the rebel-held areas.
In a statement from the Elysee Palace, Macron also reportedly underscored in a phone call to Rouhani the "particular responsibility for Iran, because of its ties to the regime, regarding the implementation of the humanitarian truce"
Macron's talks with Rouhani came a day after the French president and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed "grave concern" about the humanitarian situation in the area. The pair said UN convoys should be delivering aid to hard-hit populations in the region.
Also on Sunday, British Prime Minister Theresa May's office said she and US President Donald Trump discussed the "heart-breaking human suffering" in Syria, pinning the blame on the Assad regime and Russia.
May and Trump "agreed it was a humanitarian catastrophe, and that the overwhelming responsibility for the heart-breaking human suffering lay with the Syrian regime and Russia, as the regime's main backer," the prime minister's office said.
dm,mm/jlw (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)