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Eastern Ghouta, the war-ravaged suburb of Damascus

3 min

Beirut (AFP)

Syria's besieged Eastern Ghouta region, the last opposition enclave near Damascus, has for nearly four weeks been pounded by regime forces in an assault that has killed almost 1,250 civilians.

Here is a summary of events in Ghouta, besieged since 2013, as 20,000 of its around 400,000 population fled on Thursday, faced with advancing regime troops.

- Battles, bombings, escalation -

In July 2012, a little over a year after peaceful anti-government protests flared into a full-scale uprising, Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels attack the capital from Ghouta.

Regime forces quickly reassert control, but some areas fall to rebel groups, who set up base in Eastern Ghouta.

The region becomes the target of regular bombings and artillery strikes: markets, schools and hospitals are hit.

By 2013, Eastern Ghouta is under a strangulating regime siege, slashing access to food, medicine, and other goods for several years as the government slowly chips away at rebel territory.

Under a May 2017 deal between rebel-backer Turkey and regime allies Russia and Iran, Ghouta is declared one of four "de-escalation" zones.

But the government maintains its blockade and renews bombardment in mid-November, pulverising buildings and streets.

The regime launches an even more ferocious assault on the enclave on February 18, 2018, killing nearly 1,250 civilians, and wounding more than 4,800, while overrunning 70 percent of the territory in just under four weeks.

According to an AFP correspondent in the enclave's main town Douma, the landscape is devastated.

UN chief Antonio Guterres says Eastern Ghouta has become "hell on Earth", while the UN's human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein says Damascus is orchestrating an "apocalypse".

- Malnutrition, siege -

Eastern Ghouta was once the breadbasket of Damascus, providing rich harvests of apricots and vegetables to the capital.

But siege and bombing have sparked crippling shortages of food and medication. Some food is still grown locally or smuggled in, but prices are soaring.

Following the publication of shocking images of severely malnourished children in October 2017, the UN condemns "the deliberate starvation of civilians as a method of warfare".

The following month, the UN children's agency UNICEF says childhood malnutrition levels in the region are the highest recorded in Syria.

"Eastern Ghouta is experiencing a Middle Ages-style siege," France's UN ambassador Francois Delattre said in early January.

The first UN aid convoy in months enters the region on March 5, after the UN ordered a humanitarian truce, followed by a second delivery on March 9 and third on Thursday.

The same day, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says nearly 20,000 civilians have fled the enclave in one day, in "the largest displacement since the beginning of the assault on Ghouta."

Using a corridor through Hammuriyeh newly seized by the army, they flee on foot, in cars and on motorcycles to the government-held checkpoint of Adra.

- Chemical attacks and suffocation -

Over the past few weeks the Syrian regime has been accused of carrying out several chemical attacks on Eastern Ghouta, in addition to air and artillery strikes. Dozens of cases of suffocation are reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The regime of Bashar al-Assad has denies responsibility, as it did in August 2013, when it was accused by Washington of a chemical attack on the region and another rebel bastion near Damascus, Moadamiyet al-Sham. The US said more than 1,400 people, including 426 children, died on that occasion.

The US and regime ally Russia reached a last-gasp agreement demanding the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, thereby avoiding American and French air strikes on government positions.

A UN report concludes days later that the evidence from the attack "unequivocally and objectively" proves sarin gas was used.

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