Syrians flee government advances in eastern Ghouta

BEIRUT/GENEVA: Thousands of civilians have fled advances by Syrian government forces in eastern Ghouta over the last two days, a war monitor and a resident said on Sunday, as Damascus wages an offensive to crush the last major rebel enclave near the capital.
A commander in the military alliance that backs President Bashar al Assad said government forces needed to advance just a few more kilometres into the enclave to split it in two.
A UN humanitarian official said 400,000 people in eastern Ghouta were being subjected to unacceptable “collective punishment”, and called for the implementation of a 30-day ceasefire demanded by the UN Security Council.
With the war entering its eighth year, capturing the eastern Ghouta area would be a major victory for Assad, who has steadily recovered control of rebellious areas with military support from Russia and Iran.
The multi-sided Syrian war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people since 2011, has escalated on several fronts this year, as the collapse of IS has given way to other conflicts between Syrian and international parties.
Turkey, backed by allied Syrian militias, has gained ground in recent days against the Kurdish YPG militia in an offensive it is waging in northwestern Syria.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the advances threaten to encircle Afrin city, where 1 million people are estimated to live. The eastern Ghouta offensive is one of the deadliest of the war.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says shelling and air strikes have killed 659 people there since February 18, while rebel shelling of Damascus has killed 27. Orient TV, which supports the opposition, said advances by pro-Assad forces had triggered large-scale displacement.
One resident estimated that thousands of people were on the move and seeking shelter in areas further from the frontlines.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based organisation which reports on the war, estimated that between 300 to 400 families —roughly several thousand people — had fled areas seized by government forces since Saturday.
The pro-Assad commander said civilians were fleeing into to the town of Douma. “There are about three and a bit kilometres (to go) and they will cut (eastern Ghouta) in two,” the commander said. — Reuters