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Thousands of Syrians flee as two major battles rage

Reuters , Saturday 17 Mar 2018
Eastern Ghouta
File Photo: Children hold suitcases during evacuation from the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria, March 13 (Photo: Reuters)
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Thousands of civilians streamed out of their towns to escape battles in the north and south of Syria on Saturday, where two different offensives have prompted an exodus in recent days.

A new wave of at least 10,000 people fled a rebel pocket to army lines in eastern Ghouta near the capital Damascus in the southwest. Rescuers and a monitor said air strikes pounded the besieged zone.

In the northern Afrin region, people ran from other frontlines closing in on their homes as Turkish jets struck the main town, Syrian Kurdish forces and the monitor said. More than 150,000 people have left the town in the last few days, a senior Kurdish official said.

The two offensives - one by the Syrian army with Russia's support, and another led by Turkey with its allied Syrian rebels - entered decisive phases this week. Both have shown how foreign backers and their Syrian allies are reshaping the map after the defeat of Islamic State's self-proclaimed caliphate last year.

Syria's conflict marked seven years this week, after killing hundreds of thousands, displacing at least 11 million more, including nearly 6 million who fled abroad in one of the worst refugee crises of modern times.

Turkey launched the cross-border offensive on Afrin in January against the Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters that control the region.

In its own month-long assault, the Syrian military has marched into much of eastern Ghouta, the last big insurgent bastion around Damascus.

EASTERN GHOUTA

Government forces have splintered Ghouta into three zones in one of the bloodiest offensives of the seven-year war. For the first time, residents began running in their thousands out of the southern pocket, around the town of Hammouriyeh, this week.

State media said 10,000 more civilians reached army positions on Saturday, and some others started leaving the Harasta zone as well in a new outflow.

Troops and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) would take them to temporary shelters, it said.

Men, women, and children crossed the front by foot along a dirt road, staggering under the weight of bags and suitcases, footage on state TV showed. Many carried infants on their shoulders or pushed them in strollers. Some elderly people hobbled on wooden sticks.

The U.N. has said the exact numbers of people exiting are not known, nor are the destinations of all evacuees.

More than 30,000 people left on Saturday, the Interfax news agency cited a centre in Syria that Russia's defence ministry runs as saying. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put it at 20,000 so far.

The UK-based monitoring group said air strikes on Zamalka, in the pocket that has seen the exodus, killed 30 people gathering to leave for government lines. The monitor and local rescuers in rebel territory said warplanes pounded the towns of Kafr Batna and Ain Tarma, as well as Zamalka.

Damascus and its key ally Moscow say they strike only armed militants and seek to stop insurgent mortar fire that killed dozens in the capital. They have accused the Ghouta factions of preventing people from leaving - which rebels deny.

AFRIN

An estimated 12,000-16,000 people had already left Ghouta before Saturday, while fighting in Afrin had reportedly displaced more than 48,000, a U.N. aid official in Syria has said.

Turkey's military has pushed the YPG militia back from the border and advanced on the western and eastern flanks of Afrin town itself.

Ankara sees the Kurdish forces as an extension of the outlawed Kurdish PKK which has waged a decades-long insurgency inside Turkey.

Turkish air and artillery strikes rained down overnight and in recent days, driving tens of thousands out of the main town, Kurdish authorities and the Observatory have said.

Hevi Mustafa, a senior member of the civil authority that governs Afrin, said people fled the main town to other Kurdish-held parts of the region and to government territory.

"The situation is tragic for the people inside," she said. "And the displaced outside Afrin are out in the open without refuge or food."

The Turkish military denied on Saturday it had struck a hospital in Afrin, and added it was waging the campaign in a way that would not hurt civilians. The YPG and the Observatory had said a Turkish air strike on the town's main hospital killed 16 people the night before. 

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