Thousands of Syrians flee raging assaults on two fronts


Arbin (Syria) (AFP)

Thousands of terrified Syrian civilians fled for their lives on Saturday, as they sought to escape two raging offensives in a rebel bastion outside Damascus and a northwestern Kurdish enclave.

Syria's civil war this week entered its eighth year with world powers unable to stem a complex conflict that has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced at least half the country's population.

Tens of thousands have taken to the roads, as Russia-backed regime fighters advance against rebels in Eastern Ghouta outside the capital and Turkey-led forces press an assault in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin.

Air strikes killed at least 30 civilians in the town of Zamalka in Eastern Ghouta on Saturday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported.

The fresh bombardment came as around 10,000 people streamed out of the last rebel bastion on the capital's doorstep on Saturday morning, the Britain-based war monitor said.

An AFP reporter in the nearby town of Arbin heard intense bombardment.

Regime forces have retaken 70 percent of Eastern Ghouta since February 18, carving it up into three shrinking pockets held by different rebels.

The regime assault has killed more than 1,390 civilians in the enclave, according to the Observatory, which relies on a network of sources on the ground.

"Warplanes targeted civilians in Zamalka as they prepared to flee," the southern area of the enclave held by the Faylaq al-Rahman rebel group, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.

- Clutching blankets -

More than 40,000 civilians have poured out of Eastern Ghouta since Thursday, fleeing air strikes and advancing troops.

On Saturday, Syrian state television showed dozens of civilians trudging along a road leading into regime-held territory, dragging suitcases, clutching blankets and wearing thick winter coats.

Some carried heavy sacks and children on their shoulders, kicking up dust from the road as they marched.

An elderly woman dressed in black from head to toe limped as she walked, leaning on a wooden stick, while nearby three men carried another in a wheelchair.

Civilians who have arrived in government controlled territory have complained of having nowhere to sleep.

"Women and children are on the floor," said Abu Khaled, 35, who used to run a clothing shop in Ghouta.

Since 2013, Eastern Ghouta's estimated 400,000 residents had lived under government siege, facing severe food and medecine shortages.

In northwestern Syria meanwhile, more than 200,000 civilians have escaped their homes in the Kurdish-majority city of Afrin in less than three days, the Observatory said.

On Saturday, a Turkish air strike killed 11 civilians in the city as they were preparing to leave, it said.

The monitor says more than 280 civilians have been killed since the Afrin battle began, but Ankara has denied the reports and repeatedly said it takes the "utmost care" to avoid civilian casualties.

"There was fierce fighting throughout the night on the northern outskirts of the city as the Turkish forces and their Syrian allies tried to break into the city," the Observatory said.

- Hospital out of service -

Turkey and its Syrian Arab rebel allies have waged a nearly two-month offensive on the Afrin enclave, which is held by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).

Earlier this week, they largely surrounded the enclave's sole city, which was home to some 350,000 people, including people displaced from other parts of the enclave already overrun.

A single escape route remains open to the south to territory still held by the YPG or controlled by the Damascus government.

"Civilians are fleeing through the southern corridor," Abdel Rahman said.

Afrin has come under heavy air and artillery bombardment by the Turkish army.

On Friday evening, a Turkish bombing raid struck the city's main hospital, killing 16 civilians, a monitor said.

Turkey's military denied hitting the hospital, saying that its operation in Afrin "is carried out in such a way as to not cause any harm to civilians".

Hospital director Jiwan Mohammed told state news agency SANA the strikes had put the facility out of service.

Serwan Bery, co-chair of the Kurdish Red Crescent, said earlier it had been the city's only functioning hospital.

Turkey says the YPG is a "terrorist" offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been waging an insurgency inside Turkey since 1984.

But the Kurdish militia has also formed the backbone of a US-backed alliance that has successfully expelled the Islamic State jihadist group from large parts of Syria.