Ghouta residents ‘wait to die’

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Syrians rescue an injured child following a reported regime air strike in Hamouria, eastern Ghouta. AFP

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Residents of Syria’s eastern Ghouta district said they were waiting their “turn to die” yesterday, amid one of the most intense bombardments of the war by pro-government forces on the rebel-held enclave near Damascus.

At least 10 people died in one village and more than 200 were injured early yesterday. At least 296 people have been killed in the district in the last three days, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.

Another 13 bodies, including five children, were recovered from the rubble of houses destroyed on Tuesday in the villages of Arbin and Saqba, the Observatory reported.

Eastern Ghouta is the last major area near the capital still under rebel control. Home to 400,000 people, it has been besieged by government forces for years.

A massive escalation in bombardment, including rocket fire, shelling, air strikes and helicopter-dropped barrel bombs, since Sunday has become one of the deadliest of the Syrian civil war, now entering its eighth year.

Reuters photographs taken in eastern Ghouta yesterday showed men searching through the rubble of buildings, carrying blood-smeared people to hospital and cowering in debris-strewn streets.

The UN has denounced the bombardment, which has struck hospitals and other civilian infrastructure, saying such attacks could be war crimes. The pace of the strikes appeared to slacken overnight, but its intensity resumed yesterday morning, the Observatory said. Pro-government forces fired hundreds of rockets and dropped barrel bombs from helicopters on the district’s towns and villages.

“We are waiting our turn to die. This is the only thing I can say,” said Bilal Abu Salah, 22, whose wife is five months pregnant with their first child in the biggest eastern Ghouta town Douma. They fear the terror of the bombardment will bring her into labour early, he said.

“Nearly all people living here live in shelters now. There are five or six families in one home. There is no food, no markets,” he said.

The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations, a group of foreign agencies that fund hospitals in opposition-held parts of Syria, said eight medical facilities in eastern Ghouta had been attacked on Tuesday.

The Syrian government and its ally Russia, which has backed Bashar al-Assad with air power since 2015, say they do not target civilians. They also deny using the explosive barrel bombs dropped from helicopters whose use has been condemned by the UN.

A commander in the coalition fighting on behalf of Mr Assad’s government said overnight the bombing aims to prevent the rebels from targeting the eastern neighbourhoods of Damascus with mortars. It may be followed by a ground campaign. “The offensive has not started yet. This is preliminary bombing,” he said.

Rebels have also been firing mortars on the districts of Damascus near eastern Ghouta, wounding two people yesterday, state media reported. Rebel mortars killed at least six people on Tuesday. Conditions in eastern Ghouta, had increasingly alarmed aid agencies even before the latest assaults.

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