Air strikes kill nearly 200 in Syria enclave
Air strikes hit Syria's Eastern Ghouta for a third straight day on 20 February, bringing the civilian death toll to nearly 200 as the United Nations (UN) warned the situation in the rebel enclave was spinning ‘out of control’.
Air strikes and rocket and artillery fire have battered the rebel-held enclave since 18 February in apparent preparation for a government ground assault on the besieged region.
At least 194 civilians have been killed, among them 57 children, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
On 19 February alone, 127 civilians, including 39 children, were killed in the bombardment – the single bloodiest day for Eastern Ghouta in four years.
Fresh air strikes on 20 February morning killed at least 50 civilians, including 13 children, the Britain-based war monitor said.
Held by rebels since 2012, Eastern Ghouta is the last opposition pocket around Damascus and President Bashar al-Assad is keen to retake it with an apparently imminent ground assault.
The UN's regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria Panos Moumtzis has warned that the targeting of civilians in the enclave 'must stop now’.
Moumtzis said: ‘The humanitarian situation of civilians in East Ghouta is spiralling out of control. It's imperative to end this senseless human suffering now.’
The UN has repeatedly called for a month-long ceasefire across Syria's front lines, from Eastern Ghouta to the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in the northwest, which Turkey threatened on 20 February to lay siege to in the coming days.
The bloodshed prompted the UN children's agency UNICEF to issue a largely blank statement on 20 February to express its anger.
UNICEF said: ‘We no longer have the words to describe children's suffering and our outrage. Do those inflicting the suffering still have words to justify their barbaric acts?’
More than 400,000 people live in Eastern Ghouta, which has been surrounded by government troops since 2013. Food, medicine, and other basic necessities are nearly impossible to obtain.
Eastern Ghouta is mostly held by two hardline rebel groups – Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman – though jihadists have a smaller foothold.
The factions often fire rockets and mortar rounds into residential neighbourhoods of east Damascus.
On 20 February, at least four people were killed and 15 wounded by rebel fire on the capital, state television reported.
Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the government, said that the bombing campaign ‘comes ahead of a vast operation on Ghouta, which may start on the ground at any moment.’
Both Al-Watan and the Observatory had earlier reported ongoing negotiations for the withdrawal of jihadists from the enclave.
But the escalating bombardment suggests the regime will likely opt for a ground assault.
It already waged a ferocious five-day air assault on Eastern Ghouta earlier this month that left around 250 civilians dead and hundreds wounded.
More than 340,000 people have been killed since the civil war erupted in 2011 when protests against Assad's government were brutally crushed.
An array of rebels, some of them jihadist, have since carved out zones of control as have the Kurdish minority, and the government and its allies.
Turkey has been waging an air and ground offensive against the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin just across the border for the past month.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey, on 20 February defended the operation's slow progress, saying it was to avoid putting the lives of both Turkish troops and civilians needlessly at risk.
He told parliament Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies would lay siege to the town of Afrin ‘in the coming days.’
Ankara says the Kurdish People's Protection Units, which controls Afrin, is a ‘terrorist’ offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has waged an insurgency in southeastern Turkey since 1984.