Syrian forces advance against Ghouta rebels

Syrian forces advance against Ghouta rebels

Assad and his ally Russian Federation say the assault on eastern Ghouta is needed to end the rule of Islamist insurgents over the civilian population and to stop mortar fire on nearby Damascus.

At least eight raids struck the rebel-held towns of Busr al-Harir, Hrak, al-Gharaiya al-Gharbiya and al-Sowara in rural areas in eastern Deraa province in southern Syria, two rebel officials told Reuters.

Earlier on Monday, Jaish al-Islam, one of the main rebel groups in Syria's eastern Ghouta, said it had reached an agreement with the government's ally Russian Federation to evacuate wounded people from the besieged enclave near Damascus.

State-run Syrian TV broadcast footage showing a group of men, women and children it says left the town of Madyara after it was captured by Syrian troops on Sunday.

But no deal has been reached until now, the Observatory said.

One rebel commander said the strikes in the south appeared to be a warning to rebels under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) umbrella, who were planning to wage an offensive in coming days to relieve pressure on their comrades in Eastern Ghouta.

Syria's deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad denied opposition charges that government forces used poisonous gas in their attacks on some suburbs of Damascus.

Eastern Ghouta has been besieged for years after many of its residents joined the initial protests against Assad's rule in 2011 that triggered the slide into civil war.

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The area is home to around 400,000 people living under a crippling government siege since 2013 and struggling to access food, medicine, and other basic necessities. The expulsion of the rebels from eastern Ghouta would represent their biggest defeat since they lost their enclave in Aleppo in December 2016. More than 1100 people have been killed since the large-scale government offensive began on February 18.

There was no confirmation from Russian Federation, but the United Nations said there had been talks.

People in Eastern Ghouta say they dread a similar fate.

According to a Monday statement released by the group, Russia will allow injured Jaysh al-Islam fighters to leave opposition-held parts of Eastern Ghouta under the supervision of Russian and United Nations personnel. The group also did not say when the evacuations would begin or where the wounded would be taken.

Evacuations have taken place in other parts of Syria, where fighters and civilians have withdrawn to rebel territory near the Turkish border.

The hardline Islamist groups include the Islamic State group and a former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

"I just want to reiterate it would be very unwise for them to use weaponised gas", CNN quoted Mattis as saying on Sunday while en route to Oman.

Haley also warned Syria that the United States was prepared to take military action for alleged chemical attacks that are killing and wounding Syrian civilians.

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