Syrian government forces have launched air strikes in the Eastern Ghouta region of the Damascus countryside despite a temporary ceasefire, while rival rebel groups are gripped in violent clashes between one another, local sources have told Al Jazeera.  

Government forces are attempting to advance in several towns in Eastern Ghouta, including Deir al-Asafir, Zabdin and al-Rakabia, the sources said on Tuesday. Much of the region is besieged by government troops or pro-government armed groups.

 
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"Regime forces targeted [these towns] with heavy artillery and mortars in clear violation of the truce announced by Bashar al-Assad's regime," Ward Mardini, a Ghouta-based journalist, told Al Jazeera.

"There has been a large exodus of people from the southern part of Eastern Ghouta due to the regime's shelling, while many people have been displaced in Beit Sawa because of fighting between Jaysh al-Islam and Rahman Corps," she said, referring to rival rebel factions. 

On Monday, the Syrian army announced a 48-hour extension of a truce with rebel factions in Damascus and Eastern Ghouta that first was supposed to take effect at 1am on Saturday. 

SANA state news agency has made no mention of violence in Eastern Ghouta since the ceasefire was announced. 


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Hamza Mustafa, a research assistant at the Qatar-based Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies, said the government's attacks have been concentrated on areas far from the factional infighting between rebel groups. 

"The regime partially applied the ceasefire," he told Al Jazeera. "But it launched an operation in recent days in Deir al-Asafir and other nearby villages." 

Although the Syrian conflict started as a largely unarmed uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011, it soon morphed into a full-on civil war between government forces and rebel factions.

United Nations special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura recently estimated that 400,000 had been killed during the war. 

Rebel infighting

In Ghouta, clashes were ongoing between the powerful Jaysh al-Islam, on one side, and the Rahman Corps and its allies, on the other. 

Jaysh al-Islam commands an estimated 8,000 fighters and is one of the most powerful and organised armed groups in the Syrian opposition, said Mustafa. 

Several rebel groups have challenged Jaysh al-Islam's control in the Ghouta region since its leader was assassinated in a Russian air strike in December. Among them are al-Nusra Front, the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda, and the Rahman Corps, a breakaway group from the Free Syrian Army. 


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"Jaysh al-Islam has a lot of support in Ghouta, but they have tried to control every aspect of life," Mustafa said. "They wanted to turn it into a semi-autonomous territory like Hezbollah did in southern Lebanon. It wants to be the sole power in the region." 

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the Rahman Corps killed Abu Bakr al-Zubayr, a high-ranking member of the Jaysh al-Islam, in a shelling attack over the weekend. 

Muhammad al-Abdullah, a media activist and journalist based in Saqba, in Eastern Ghouta, said the clashes "have been very violent" in recent days.  

"The fighting between the factions happened because there have been many arrests and assassinations targeting [rival opposition leaders] in Eastern Ghouta," he told Al Jazeera.

Dozens of fighters from both sides were injured in battles over the weekend and at least two civilians were shot and killed, according to the Observatory. 

Journalist Mardini said there have been large demonstrations every day calling for unity between opposition groups in towns and villages across Eastern Ghouta.

Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

Source: Al Jazeera