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Reports: Syrian troops split rebel-held enclave near capital

March 7, 2018

This photo released by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a member of the Syrian Civil Defense group helping a man who was wounded after airstrikes and shelling hit in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, Syria, Wednesday, March. 7, 2018. Government forces carried out punishing airstrikes against an opposition-held suburb of Damascus, seeking to divide the besieged enclave in two and further squeeze rebels and tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside, state-run media and opposition activists reported. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces seized vast swaths of territory including farmland in the opposition-held suburbs of Damascus on Wednesday, effectively dividing the besieged enclave in two and further squeezing rebels and tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside, state media and a war monitor reported.

The government, determined to wrest the eastern Ghouta suburbs from the control of rebels after seven years of war, has resorted to extreme levels of shelling and bombardment to clear the way for its troops to advance on the ground. Hundreds have been killed in the past two weeks, including dozens reported Wednesday.

Doctors and residents reported intense shelling and cases of suffocation and difficulty breathing, accusing the government of using chlorine gas Wednesday night. Hamza Hassan, a surgeon working at one of the hospitals in eastern Ghouta, said that staff was overwhelmed with chlorine odor and that he had treated 29 children with difficulties breathing.

Such reports, which have been recurrent in the past weeks, could not be independently confirmed. The government has repeatedly denied using chlorine gas.

Earlier on Wednesday, the state-affiliated al-Ikhbariya TV station broadcast live shots from the region, showing dense columns of smoke rising above the town as explosions and rockets could be heard flying overhead. Syria’s Central Military Media said troops took control of the town of Beit Sawa and most of Misraba, both rebel-held communities in the heart of the enclave.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that by nightfall, Syrian government troops and allied militias had seized half of the territory held by rebels in eastern Ghouta and split the enclave in two halves — a north and southern part.

By slicing the territory, the Syrian government succeeds in further squeezing rebels, making it more difficult for them to continue to hang on to the territory.

Dramatic videos released by the opposition’s Syrian Civil Defense on Wednesday showed rescuers digging away hard-packed rubble to rescue a dust-covered little boy and a baby girl in the town of Arbeen. The Britain-based Observatory, which monitors the war through a network of activists on the ground, said more than 50 people were killed in the bombardment Wednesday.

In Geneva, U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein denounced what he said were attempts by Syria’s government to justify indiscriminate, brutal attacks on hundreds of thousands of civilians by the need to combat a few hundred fighters in eastern Ghouta, calling it “legally and morally unsustainable.”

“When you are prepared to kill your own people, lying is easy too. Claims by the government of Syria that it is taking every measure to protect its civilian population are frankly ridiculous,” he said.

Civilians are not safe anywhere in eastern Ghouta, and aid workers who entered briefly on Monday said some residents hadn’t seen sunlight for two weeks because they were sheltering underground.

At least 800 civilians have been killed since the offensive started Feb. 18, according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights monitoring group. Russia’s military by its own admission is playing a key role supporting the assault.

Russia’s military announced Monday it was offering safe passage for rebels and their families out of eastern Ghouta, where some 400,000 people have been trapped under a relentless government campaign of shelling and airstrikes.

Rebel spokesman Wael Olwan dismissed the offer on Tuesday, saying it was “psychological warfare.”

Olwan said Wednesday that rebels had plugged their defensive lines after they crumbled in the early days of the assault.

The opposition generally rejects evacuation agreements, saying they amount to demographic engineering — a tactic through which the government forcibly displaces its opponents.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has urged all parties to abide by a 30-day cease-fire ordered by the Security Council on Feb. 24 to allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians in desperate need. A rare humanitarian aid convoy made it to eastern Ghouta on Monday but was forced to cut short its mission amid severe bombardment by the government. It was not clear whether another convoy, planned for Thursday, would go through. Aid agencies said they were negotiating security guarantees ahead of the mission.

The Security Council was expected to meet Wednesday to address the stillborn cease-fire.

Meanwhile, Turkey called on the United States to prevent U.S.-backed Kurdish forces from sending fighters deployed against the Islamic State group to shore up Kurdish forces battling a Turkish offensive in an enclave in northwest Syria.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman said Turkey wants the United States to “step in and prevent” the redeployment.

A spokesman for Arab militias within the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said Tuesday that as many as 1,700 fighters would be redeployed.

Turkey sent troops into the Afrin enclave on Jan. 20 to drive out Syrian Kurdish fighters it considers to be terrorists.

U.S. officials have warned that Turkey’s offensive could undermine the fight against the IS.

Erdogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalin rejected that, saying the aim was to clear Syria of all terror groups.

Meanwhile, Russia’s military said a general was among 39 people killed in the crash of a Russian military transport plane in Syria. Russian military identified him as Maj. Gen. Vladimir Yeremeyev.

The An-26 twin-engine turboprop crashed Tuesday while preparing to land at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria, killing all 33 passengers and six crew on board, the Defense Ministry said. The plane was flying from the Kweires air base near Aleppo in northern Syria to Hemeimeem, which serves as the main hub for the Russian campaign in Syria. It said the plane did not come under fire and that the crash was likely caused by a technical failure.

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Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.

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