Airstrikes return to Syria's Ghouta killing 40 civilians as talks sputter

Douma eastern Ghouta

State news agency SANA said the attacks were retaliation for the shelling of almost government-held areas by rebels from Jaish al-Islam, which controls Douma.

The violence comes after almost two weeks of calm in the last rebel-held town in the area after the Russians agreed with the Army of Islam to evacuate the area toward rebel-held regions north of the country.

Rebels in Eastern Ghouta have managed to keep Syrian military forces at bay during years of war, but a four-year government siege of the district has led to a humanitarian crisis with severe shortages of food and medicine.

Moscow announced a deal with Jaish al-Islam last Sunday, ushering in three consecutive days of evacuations from Douma. State media said the rebels were responsible for the Damascus shelling.

According to local sources, Friday's airstrikes were prompted by a disagreement between Russian Federation and the Jaish al-Islam, with the latter insisting that Duma be included in the evacuation process.

"Forces are already amassing there and there is massive pressure on Jaish al-Islam", said Nawar Oliver, an analyst at the Omran Institute.

At least eight civilians were killed in Saturday's bombardment of Douma, bringing to 48 the number of civilians who have been killed in the town since Friday, the Britain-based watchdog added.

Since February 18, the regime's offensive has killed more than 1,600 civilians and kept residents cowering in basements for weeks.

Others have blamed internal rebel divisions over the withdrawal process.




The enclave on the eastern edge of Damascus had escaped government control since 2012 and, although it had shrunk over the years, it still covered sizeable territory two months ago. The rebel group denied targeting the residential area.

Under Russian-brokered deals, two rebel-held pockets of Eastern Ghouta were evacuated last month that saw more than 46,000 rebels and civilians bussed to opposition-held Idlib province in the northwest.

Jaish al-Islam had been angling for a reconciliation deal that would allow them to stay in Douma as a police force.

Tens of thousands also fled into government-controlled territory through safe passages opened by Russian Federation and Syrian troops. Jaish al-Islam's political official called for talks to spare civilian bloodshed.

Top Jaish al-Islam political figure Mohammad Alloush yesterday blamed global supporters of Syria's government for hamstringing the talks.

"There were 20 strikes in 15 minutes", Mohammed, a medic, told AFP from Douma on Friday.

Some of the injured are in critical condition, said Ammar Selmo, head of the Syrian Civil Defense in the city, fearing the death toll may rise.

Roughly 100,000 people live in Duma, a regime-besieged neighborhood of Eastern Ghouta that is approximately seven square kilometers in size.

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