Thousands more Syrians flee their homes as eastern Ghouta, Afrin battles rage
Beirut: Thousands of civilians streamed out of their towns on Saturday to escape battles in the north and south of Syria, where two different offensives have prompted an exodus in recent days.
A new wave of people fled a rebel pocket to army lines in eastern Ghouta near the capital Damascus, as rescuers and a monitor said air strikes pounded the besieged zone.
In the northern Afrin region, people fled as Turkish war planes 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, the other led by Turkey with 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.
Turkey launched the cross-border offensive in January against the Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters who control Afrin.
In its month-long assault, the Syrian military has marched into much of eastern Ghouta, the last major insurgent bastion around Damascus.
Troops splintered Ghouta into three besieged zones in one of the bloodiest offensives of the seven-year war. Residents came out in their thousands this week for the first time, from the southern pocket around Hammouriyeh town.
State media said 30,000 more civilians reached army positions on Saturday, including some who started leaving the Harasta zone as well in a new outflow.
Men, women, and children walked along a dirt road, staggering under 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 Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said air strikes on Zamalka killed 30 people gathering to leave for government lines in the morning. Damascus and its ally Moscow say they only attack armed militants and seek to end the rule of Islamist insurgents over the suburbs.
The rebel factions accuse Damascus of trying to depopulate opposition towns and deny its charges that they have blocked people from leaving.
The United Nations has said the exact number of people fleeing is not known nor are the destinations of all evacuees. Mobile clinics were open and some people were taken to hospital in the capital, it said.