Civilians flee final phases of intense Syria battles

  • Rebel group rejects Russia’s surrender demands

BEIRUT: Thousands of civilians were fleeing from besieged enclaves at opposite ends of Syria on Friday as two major battles in the multi-sided war entered decisive phases, with hundreds of thousands of people trapped in the path of both assaults.

Air strikes killed scores of people in eastern Ghouta, a war monitor said, and weary residents streamed out on foot for a second day, as Russian-backed government forces pressed their campaign to capture the last big rebel bastion near Damascus. On another front, Turkish and allied rebel forces struck the northern Kurdish-held town of Afrin, killing more than 40 people including children, Syrian Kurdish forces and a monitor said.

The Kurdish YPG militia defending Afrin said it battled Turkish forces who tried to storm the town from the north.

The two offensives, one backed by Russia and the other led by Turkey, have shown how Syrian factions and their foreign allies are aggressively reshaping the map of control after the defeat of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate last year.

The Syrian war entered its eighth year this week having killed half a million people and driven more than 11 million from their homes, including nearly 6 million who have fled abroad in one of the worst refugee crises of modern times.

The government launched its offensive on eastern Ghouta a month ago, and Turkey began its cross-border assault in Afrin in January. In both cases, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been trapped inside encircled pockets on the battlefield.

An estimated 12,000-16,000 people left Ghouta in recent days, while fighting in the Afrin region has reportedly displaced more than 48,000, said Linda Tom, a UN humanitarian spokeswoman in Syria.

Meanwhile, the main rebel faction in eastern Ghouta said on Friday it rejected a proposal from Russia for talks inside Syria over the fighters surrendering and leaving their enclave.

Wael Olwan, a spokesman for Failaq al-Rahman, which controls a pocket in Ghouta, said Moscow’s messages to the rebels came through the United Nations. “What the Russians are asking for in terms of surrender through (local) negotiations is rejected,” said Olwan, who is based in Turkey.