x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

‘Ferocious fight’ to break blockade in Damascus suburbs kills scores

More than 160 people killed in the past two days as Syrian rebels struggle to break a months-long blockade by regime forces aimed at starving out residents.

BEIRUT // Fierce fighting to the east of Damascus has killed more than 160 people in the past two days as Syrian rebels struggle to break a months-long blockade by regime forces.

The fighting began on Friday when rebel units attacked a string of military checkpoints encircling the opposition-held suburbs in an area known as Eastern Ghouta, which has been under siege for more than six months.

Local and international aid workers say the president Bashar Al Assad’s forces appeared to be trying to starve out residents, indiscriminately affecting civilians as much as rebel fighters.

The blockade has cut off rebels’ weapons supplies and helped turn the tide of fighting around the capital in Mr Al Assad’s favour.

The battle has also drawn in hundreds of foreign fighters on both sides, underlining how Syria’s civil war has stirred Sunni-Shiite tensions across the region.

“It is a ferocious fight between the two sides because it’s a struggle over our ultimate fate here,” said Bara Abdelrahman, a spokesman with the rebel Islam Army brigades in the area.

The conflict in Syria has killed more than 110,000 people, according to the United Nations.

Foreign powers are trying to bring the warring sides together for a peace conference in Switzerland before the end of the year, called Geneva 2. Yesterday, Syria’s peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met members of the opposition to discuss the talks, which many rebel groups have rejected without a clear guarantee that Mr Al Assad will step down.

Mr Al Assad’s government says it welcomes talks but will not accept any preconditions.

Meanwhile, regime forces, emboldened by gains in central Syria in recent months, have been seizing back towns in the rebels’ northern stronghold.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels had advanced in Eastern Ghouta in recent fighting, seizing some small villages and the once government-held town of Deir Attiya.

Mr Al Assad’s forces responded with three air raids.

The Britain-based observatory, a pro-opposition group with a network of activists across Syria, said it had documented about 100 deaths on the rebel side on Friday and Saturday in Eastern Ghouta, and more than 60 among regime forces.

But it said there were likely to be more deaths that had not been documented.

“This battle has been one of incredible human losses,” said Rami Abdelrahman, head of the observatory. “The fighting is spreading all over the eastern suburbs.”

* Reuters