Thousands flee as noose tightens around Eastern Ghouta in Syria
By Nathan Morley
Many war weary civilians continue to arrive at checkpoints near specially established humanitarian corridors operated by the Assad government.
Some reports suggest that 4,000 people were escorted to safety on Friday, in addition to 20,000 the previous day. Unicef representatives are preparing to assess the needs of evacuees that have taken refuge temporary shelters near Damascus.
Hundreds of civilians have died since last month, when Syrian forces launched a large-scale offensive on Eastern Ghouta to dislodge rebel fighters. Many civilians trapped in the fighting have been forced to shelter in cellars and basements.
The region is the only big rebel bastion close to the capital Damascus.
The exceptional extent of the destruction has reduced countless hospitals and medical centres to ruins. Prior to the conflict, Eastern Ghouta was home to about two million people, but the seven-year long war has since reduced the population by three-quarters.
Despite international calls for a ceasefire, there has been no let up in the ongoing offensive.
Reports suggest that the government bombardment continued throughout Friday in the south of the Ghouta region – where Assad forces are pushing into densely populated areas. Several Russian air strikes were also reported in Kafr Batna, one apparently hitting a popular market place.
Elsewhere, in the town of Afrin, shelling from the Turkish military is reported to have killed at least 16 people.
“We have been receiving deeply alarming reports from Afrin in Syria about civilian deaths and injuries due to air-strikes and ground-based strikes,”OHCHR spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said Friday.
In January, the Turkish military, along with the Free Syrian Army, launched 'Operation Olive Branch' in Afrin targeting the YPG, which Ankara views as an extension of the banned PKK Kurdistan Workers' Party. The huge cross-border operation - which involves air-strikes and land forces - has proved to be costly.
On Thursday, the United States demanded Syria's government, Russia and Iran be held responsible for what national security adviser H.R. McMaster described as "some of the worst atrocities known to man."