Fresh raids pound Syria's rebel Douma after talks falter

Beirut (AFP) –


Fresh bombardment pounded the last opposition holdout in Syria's Eastern Ghouta on Saturday, a day after troops resumed a deadly military blitz in a bid to pressure rebels to withdraw.

With Moscow's help, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has ousted his armed opponents from nearly all of Ghouta, their former stronghold on the edge of the capital.

The regime has used a combination of fierce bombardment and two negotiated withdrawals since February 18 to empty out 95 percent of the enclave but rebels are still entrenched in its largest town of Douma.

As Moscow pursued talks with Jaish al-Islam, the Islamist faction that holds Douma, bombing subsided and military operations appeared to be on hold for around ten days.

But the negotiations crumbled this week and air strikes suddenly resumed on Friday afternoon, killing dozens of civilians.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said at least 40 civilians were dead, including eight children, and even more were wounded.

More bombing raids slammed into the town on Saturday, the Britain-based Observatory and a civil defence worker said.

"The bombing still hasn't stopped. There are three warplanes in the sky and two helicopters," Firas al-Doumi, a rescue worker inside Douma, told AFP on Saturday morning.

Syrian state television broadcast live footage of raids over Douma, showing billowing clouds of smoke over a devastated urban landscape.

State news agency SANA said rockets fired from Douma on Saturday struck several Damascus neighbourhoods killing at least five civilians.

Assad is keen to recapture Ghouta to eliminate the opposition from the outskirts of Damascus and end years of rocket fire on the capital.

Since February 18, the regime's offensive has killed more than 1,600 civilians and kept residents cowering in basements for weeks. A ground assault then sliced the area into three isolated pockets, each held by different rebel factions.

- 'With no warning' -

The first two were evacuated under Russian-brokered deals last month that saw more than 46,000 rebels and civilians bussed to opposition-held Idlib province in the northwest.

Tens of thousands also fled into government-controlled territory through safe passages opened by Russia and Syrian troops.

Moscow stepped in to negotiate a deal for Douma, the third and final pocket where Jaish al-Islam had been angling for a reconciliation agreement that would allow them to stay as a police force.

Following a preliminary accord announced by Russia on Sunday, nearly 3,000 fighters and civilians were evacuated from Douma to northern Syria.

But as talks dragged on, Syria and its Russian ally threatened Jaish al-Islam with a renewed military assault if they did not agree to withdraw.

It remains unclear exactly why the talks fell apart this week.

SANA said they faltered when Jaish al-Islam refused to release detainees they were holding in Douma, adding that the military assault would only stop if hostages are released.

Others have blamed internal rebel divisions over the withdrawal process.

Top Jaish al-Islam political figure Mohammad Alloush on Friday blamed power struggles between the regime's allies.

"The talks were going well... Their only shared interests is the blood of civilians," he said.

The resumption of strikes stunned civilians.

"All of a sudden, with no warning, the shelling starts. There were 20 strikes in 15 minutes," Mohammed, a medic, told AFP from Douma on Friday.

The wounded were being brought in with fractures and other injuries, and there had been three amputations on Friday alone, he said.

Syrian troops also carried out a ground operation Friday in the orchards surrounding Douma.

On Saturday, fresh artillery fire hit those fields, said the Observatory.

"The regime is trying to tighten the noose around Douma from the west, east, and south," said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.