BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian government forces and allied militias gained ground on Wednesday in clashes with rebels in eastern Ghouta near Damascus as fighting raged despite a Russian ceasefire plan, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
The government forces advanced in the Hawsh al-Dawahira area on the eastern edge of the opposition’s besieged stronghold, the Observatory reported. The Syrian army and rebel sources could not immediately be reached for comment on the report.
The Russian plan is for daily, five-hour ceasefires in eastern Ghouta from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. (0700 GMT to 1200 GMT). But after a brief lull, the agreement collapsed into renewed bombardment on Tuesday, the first day of the plan.
Eastern Ghouta, where the United Nations says around 400,000 people live, is a major target for President Bashar al-Assad, who has recovered numerous areas from rebels with Russian and Iranian military backing.
On Feb. 18, the government and its allies began one of the heaviest bombardments of Syria’s seven-year conflict on eastern Ghouta, killing hundreds of people in air and artillery strikes, the Observatory and local rescue workers say.
It led the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution on Saturday calling for a full, 30-day humanitarian ceasefire reaching across all of Syria but excluding some jihadist groups.
Moscow and Damascus blamed rebels for the collapse of the truce on Tuesday, saying fighters had shelled a safe route intended for civilians to leave the enclave.
The insurgents denied such shelling, and a senior U.S. general accused Moscow of acting as “both arsonist and firefighter” by failing to rein in Assad.
A Syrian military source said the corridor was open for a second day on Wednesday to allow civilians, the sick and wounded to leave eastern Ghouta. But state TV reported that no civilians had left the area on Tuesday or Wednesday.
Rebels say people will not leave eastern Ghouta because of fear of the Syrian government. The eastern Ghouta is an area of farmland and towns that represents the rebels’ last major stronghold near Damascus.
Rebels have intensified shelling of nearby government-held Damascus. A medical official in the capital said on Monday 36 people had been killed in four days. Damascus and Moscow say the campaign in eastern Ghouta is needed to halt such shelling.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday the plan would allow aid to be delivered to eastern Ghouta.
But the United Nations said it was proving impossible to aid civilians or evacuate wounded, and said all sides must instead abide by the 30-day truce sought by the U.N. Security Council.
With no sign of decisive international pressure to stop the attack, eastern Ghouta seems likely to meet the same fate as other areas won back by the government, where rebels and dissident civilians eventually left in negotiated withdrawals.
The multi-sided Syrian war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven half of the pre-war population of 23 million from their homes. Fighting has escalated on several fronts this year, with the collapse of Islamic State giving rise to conflict between other Syrian and foreign parties.
As Assad has pressed the offensive against eastern Ghouta, Turkey has launched an incursion against Kurdish fighters in the northwestern Afrin region. Tensions have also flared between Iran and Israel, alarmed by Tehran’s influence in Syria. Syrian air defences shot down an Israeli F-16 earlier this month as it returned from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria.
(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)