Syrian Army Says Most of Rebel-held Eastern Ghouta Retaken

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A man walks with his bicycle in the town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Syria, March 30, 2018.
A man walks with his bicycle in the town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Syria, March 30, 2018.Credit: \ BASSAM KHABIEH/ REUTERS

The Syrian army command said on Saturday it has regained most of the towns and villages in eastern Ghouta and was pressing its military operations in the last rebel bastion of Douma. 

In a televised statement, the Syrian army spokesman said the weeks-long military campaign had now brought security to the Syrian capital and also secured its main links to other parts of the country, stretching north and all the way to the Iraqi border to the east.

The army command said military operations were continuing in the outskirts of the city of Douma, controlled by the Jaish al-Islam rebel group, the last patch of eastern Ghouta still held by insurgents. 

Douma's fall would seal the rebels' worst defeat since 2016, driving them from their last big stronghold near the capital, and would also carry potent symbolism. The town was the main centre of street protests in the Damascus suburbs against President Bashar Assad's rule that ignited the conflict seven years ago. 

The army said hundreds of rebels had been killed in the ferocious offensive. The opposition says a relentless air campaign was waged in which where the army used napalm, chlorine and incendiary bombs to demoralize rebels by targeting civilian areas. 

The rebels say the indiscriminate bombing forced them to capitulate and agree to surrender deals that force them either to make peace or leave to rebel held areas after weeks of bombing and sieges that prevented food from reaching the enclaves. 

The Syrian army has repeatedly said regaining control over rebel-held suburbs would stop rocket attacks on the capital. 

They deny that many civilains were killed in bombardments that rescuers and residents say reduced whole neighbourhoods to rubble in densely populated areas where at least 350,000 people lived. 

Defence analysts say a major goal of the campaign was to complete a security belt around the capital. 

President Assad said recently securing eastern Ghouta had foiled plots by his foreign enemies to topple him. 

"The gains have been achieved after units of the army eliminated hundreds of terrorists, their headquarter and their fortifications," the army statement said. 

Douma is surrounded by government forces. Tens of thousands of civilians remain in the town. The rebels there deny they are negotiating an evacuation deal and say talks with the Russian military aim to find a solution that would allow them to stay in the city under Moscow's protection. 

"Army units are continuing their combat operations to rid Douma of terrorists," the army statement said. 

The Russian-backed offensive in eastern Ghouta has killed more than 1,600 civilians and thousands of wounded, rescuers said. The authorities say about 150,000 people have now been displaced from eastern Ghouta. 

Thousands of people – fighters, their families and other civilians – have been leaving for northwestern Syria from other parts of eastern Ghouta in convoys of buses that have been given safe passage to Idlib province. 

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