Syrian army prepares to launch ‘huge’ operation in Eastern Ghouta

Government-affiliated newspaper says troops are mobilised around Douma, the enclave’s last remaining rebel stronghold.

Thousands of people have so far left Eastern Ghouta [Bassam Khabieh/Reuters]
Thousands of people have so far left Eastern Ghouta [Bassam Khabieh/Reuters]

Syrian government forces are preparing to launch a “huge” military operation to capture Douma, the last remaining rebel stronghold in Eastern Ghouta, according to local media.

The government-affiliated al-Watan newspaper reported on Wednesday that troops were dispatched around the town, which is largely controlled by the Jaish al-Islam rebel group.

The mobilisation was preparation of a potential confrontation with the rebels should they fail to evacuate the enclave near Damascus, the report said.

The Russian army, a major ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has been engaged in negotiations with Jaish al-Islam for several days. The talks, however, have so far yielded no result.

An estimated 140,000 people remain inside Douma, with limited access to food, water and medical supplies.

The Douma local council, linked to Jaish al-Islam, on Tuesday issued a statement seen by Al Jazeera, explaining to the residents of the enclave that the armed opposition group had requested from the Russians an extension of the ceasefire and for the flow of aid to resume.

Activists in Douma told Al Jazeera that civilians inside the enclave are extremely exhausted and have “lost faith in the negotiations between Russia and the armed opposition”.

One activist, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, told Al Jazeera that some 400 fled Douma through the al-Wafideen camp crossing to government-controlled shelters outside of Eastern Ghouta.

According to the activist, Jaish al-Islam implored the 400 residents to wait until a deal was reached with the Russians, before allowing the residents, some were in desperate need of medical attention, to flee to government-controlled territory.

On February 18, government forces launched a relentless ground and aerial offensive on the enclave in an attempt to drive out rebel groups who had been in control of the Damascus suburb since mid-2013.

Last week, following more than six weeks of bombardment, two rebel groups managed to reach an evacuation deal with the Russian army, which resulted in about 19,000 people leave towards the northern province of Idlib.

Those leaving included fighters from the Faylaq al-Rahman and Ahrar al-Sham rebel groups, their families and other residents.

Source : Al Jazeera

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