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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Syrian army prepares assault to end rebel siege of base east of Damascus

Elite forces amass for battle to relieve troops holding the Military Vehicles Administration complex

A wounded man is carried following an air strike on the rebel-held besieged town of Arbin, in the eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on January 2, 2018. Abdulmonam Eassa / AFP
A wounded man is carried following an air strike on the rebel-held besieged town of Arbin, in the eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on January 2, 2018. Abdulmonam Eassa / AFP

The Syrian army was preparing to break a siege of an army garrison in what is the last rebel bastion on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, residents and witnesses said on Wednesday.

They said the army, supported by Russian airpower, was amassing elite forces for an assault on the Military Vehicles Administration, which is besieged by rebels. At least 200 troops were believed to be trapped there.

Since Sunday, rebels mainly belonging to the Salafist Ahrar Al Sham faction have extended their control of parts of the sprawling army base in Harasta that penetrates Eastern Ghouta, the last rebel bastion around the capital.

In the last week, Eastern Ghouta's rebel towns and villages have suffered escalating aerial attacks.

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State media did not report the assault but said "terrorists" - a term used by the government to describe all rebels - had fired mortars on residential areas in Harasta and the army responded by strikes in Eastern Ghouta that led to losses in the ranks of the insurgents.

Civil defence sources said that in four days of heavy aerial strikes since Friday, 38 civilians were killed and at least 147 people have been injured. Five civilians were killed on Tuesday.

The base has long been used to strike at the densely populated Eastern Ghouta in an attempt to force the rebel enclave to submission. More than 300,000 people there have lived under siege by army troops since 2013.

The advances take rebels closer to the heart of the capital again after they were pushed out of their remaining pockets last year.

The army setback came against a backdrop of successive battlefield victories that allowed Syrian government forces with heavy reliance on Russia and Iran to regain large tracts of territory from insurgents.

Residents said at least 30 aerial strikes hit residential areas of Eastern Ghouta on Tuesday. Shelling of a market in the city of Douma, the main urban centre in the Ghouta, left one dead and scores injured.

"The front lines of Ghouta are witnessing battles and clashes and big losses inflicted on [Syrian president] Al Assad's forces and his militias," said Hamza Biriqdar, the spokesman for Jaish Al Islam, a main rebel faction.

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Further northwest, rebels were retreating from more villages seized by the army in southern Idlib province and the adjoining eastern Hama countryside.

The strikes have escalated in the last week on this major front, with at least 50 villages retaken by the Syrian army and its allies in their push into the last major province in rebel hands that borders Turkey.

The intensity of strikes by Russia and the Syrian Air Force has driven tens of thousands of villagers in these areas to flee to the relative safety of the northern part of Idlib province near the Turkish border, where many shelter in makeshift tents.

Meanwhile a Russian helicopter crashed in Syria on New Year's Eve killing both pilots following a technical fault, Moscow's defence ministry said on Wednesday.

The Mi-24 military helicopter was flying to Hama, northwestern Syria, and there was no firing from the ground, agencies quote the ministry as saying.

"Both pilots died in a hard landing 15 km from the air base," the ministry said, adding that a technician had been injured and taken to another air base for emergency treatment.

The investigative blog Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) quoted a post from Forumavia aviation forum saying the helicopter had tripped over power line wires and crashed while escorting a convoy.

The post did not specify whether the helicopter was escorting a humanitarian convoy or combat unit and the defence ministry did not give any further details.

Russia became involved in the multi-front conflict in September 2015, when it began an aerial campaign in support of president Bashar Al Assad's military.

Russia's Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu last month said the military had completed the partial withdrawal from Syria ordered by President Vladimir Putin, but Russia will maintain a presence in the country, including three battalions and two bases.

Moscow acknowledged in recent months that its special forces are also active on the ground in the offensive against Islamic State jihadists.