Fighting shakes Syria enclave after regime advances

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Damascus (AFP)

Fighting rocked Syria's Eastern Ghouta on Sunday as rebels battled to retake territory seized in a devastating regime assault on the last major opposition enclave near Damascus.

Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad launched the assault earlier this month with waves of air strikes, artillery fire and rocket attacks that are reported to have left more than 640 civilians dead.

Under growing international pressure to end the bloodshed, regime backer Russia last week announced daily five-hour "humanitarian pauses" in the enclave. But while the air campaign has eased, fighting has intensified on the ground.

Regime forces engaged in clashes with rebels in the eastern area of the enclave on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, after advances in recent days that saw the regime seize control of 10 percent of the region.

Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Observatory, said at least 12 regime fighters had been killed in two areas, Al-Rihan and Shifoniya, in overnight clashes with the Jaish al-Islam rebel group.

Jaish al-Islam shares control of rebel-held parts of Eastern Ghouta with Faylaq al-Rahman and Ahrar al-Sham. Damascus and Moscow say they are trying to clear the area of "terrorists".

Hamza Bayraqdar, a spokesman for Jaish al-Islam, said on Twitter that the group's forces had launched "surprise attacks" against regime positions.

The Observatory, which relies on a network of sources on the ground to monitor Syria's civil war, said rebels had retaken some parts of Shifoniya.

- Hundreds flee -

An AFP correspondent inside Eastern Ghouta saw hundreds of civilians on Sunday fleeing from the town of Beit Sawa in the southeast of the enclave.

The Observatory said some 2,000 civilians had fled regime shelling and clashes in eastern parts of the enclave.

On Saturday, 18 civilians, including three children, were killed in regime bombardment of Eastern Ghouta, according to the Observatory.

At least 76 pro-regime fighters and 43 rebels from Jaish al-Islam have also been killed in clashes since February 25, it says.

Encircled by regime-controlled territory and unable or unwilling to flee, Eastern Ghouta's 400,000 residents have in recent weeks suffered one of the most ferocious assaults of Syria's civil war.

Under siege since 2013, they had already been facing severe shortages of food and medicine. The region's over-burdened medical workers have been struggling to cope with the rising number of wounded.

While falling short of a 30-day ceasefire demanded by the United Nations, the announcement of daily humanitarian pauses in fighting had raised hopes of some aid deliveries and evacuations.

But trucks loaded with aid have so far been unable to enter the enclave, according to the UN.

Moscow has offered safe passage to non-combatants wishing to leave the enclave during the pause, but no Syrian civilians have left since the first break in fighting took effect on Tuesday, the Observatory says.

The Russian military said in a statement that no civilians exited via the established corridor on Saturday.

Damascus and Moscow have accused rebels of preventing civilians from leaving.

- 'Simply unacceptable' -

French President Emmanuel Macron and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres expressed "grave concern" about the humanitarian situation in the area in a telephone conversation late Saturday.

"The UN convoys must immediately deliver medical assistance and food aid to the besieged population," the French presidency said.

Macron was set to speak by telephone Sunday with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, another key supporter of the Syrian regime.

The UN's regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Panos Moumtzis, sounded the alarm on Sunday over the increase in violence.

"Instead of a much-needed reprieve, we continue to see more fighting, more death, and more disturbing reports of hunger and hospitals being bombed," he said in a statement.

"This collective punishment of civilians is simply unacceptable."

As Syria's conflict approaches its seventh anniversary, Assad's forces, heavily backed by Russia, have retaken most of the territory once lost to rebels.

Eastern Ghouta remains one of the few areas outside their control, along with the northwestern province of Idlib which is partly controlled by Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists.