Reports: Syrian troops split rebel-held enclave near capital

BEIRUT (AP) — Government forces on Wednesday seized vast swathes of territory including farmland from rebels in the opposition-held suburbs of Damascus, effectively dividing the besieged enclave in two and further squeezing rebels and tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside, state media and a war monitor reported.

The government, determined to wrest the suburbs from the control of rebels after seven years of war, has resorted to extreme levels of shelling and bombardment to clear the way for its troops to advance on the ground. Hundreds have been killed in the past two weeks.

The state-affiliated al-Ikhbariya TV station on Wednesday broadcast live shots from the region, showing dense columns of smoke rising above the town as explosions and rockets could be heard flying overhead. Syria’s Central Military Media said troops took control of the town of Beit Sawa and most of Misraba, both rebel-held communities in the heart of the enclave.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that by nightfall, Syrian government troops and allied militias had seized half of the territory held by rebels in eastern Ghouta and split the enclave in two halves — a north and southern part.

By slicing the territory, the Syrian government succeeds in severing supply routes and squeezing further rebels inside.

Dramatic videos released by the opposition’s Syrian Civil Defense on Wednesday showed rescuers digging away hard-packed rubble to rescue a dust-covered little boy and a baby girl in the town of Arbeen. The Britain-based Observatory, which monitors the war through a network of activists on the ground, said 40 people were killed in the bombardment Wednesday.

In Geneva, U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein denounced what he said were attempts by Syria’s government to justify indiscriminate, brutal attacks on hundreds of thousands of civilians by the need to combat a few hundred fighters in eastern Ghouta, calling it “legally and morally unsustainable.”

“When you are prepared to kill your own people, lying is easy too. Claims by the government of Syria that it is taking every measure to protect its civilian population are frankly ridiculous,” he said.

Civilians are not safe anywhere in eastern Ghouta, and aid workers who entered briefly on Monday said some residents hadn’t seen sunlight for two weeks because they were sheltering underground.

At least 800 civilians have been killed since the offensive started Feb. 18, according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights monitoring group. Russia’s military by its own admission is playing a key role supporting the assault.

Russia’s military announced Monday it was offering safe passage for rebels and their families out of eastern Ghouta, where some 400,000 people have been trapped under a relentless government campaign of shelling and airstrikes.

Rebel spokesman Wael Olwan dismissed the offer on Tuesday, saying it was “psychological warfare.”

Olwan said Wednesday that rebels had plugged their defensive lines after they crumbled in the early days of the assault.

The opposition generally rejects evacuation agreements, saying they amount to demographic engineering — a tactic through which the government forcibly displaces its opponents.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has urged all parties to abide by a 30-day cease-fire ordered by the Security Council on Feb. 24 to allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians in desperate need. A rare humanitarian aid convoy made it to eastern Ghouta on Monday but was forced to cut short its mission amid severe bombardment by the government. It was not clear whether another convoy, planned for Thursday, would go through. Aid agencies said they were negotiating security guarantees ahead of the mission.

The Security Council was expected to meet Wednesday to address the stillborn cease-fire.