Syrian forces attacked eastern Ghouta from the air and tried to launch a ground assault one day after the UN Security Council demanded in a resolution a 30-day truce around Damascus, opposition activists said.
The government of Bashar al-Assad said an intense air campaign on rebel-held eastern Ghouta that has been under way since last week was aimed at al-Qaeda forces and their allies. Opposition forces in the suburbs had been firing on Damascus, it added.
Rebels said the air campaign was launched against their areas first to try to force them out. But the mortar fire falling on Damascus, which has killed dozens of civilians as well, was not as deadly as the attacks on the Ghouta suburbs, said aid groups.
In the past week, 500 people have been killed, more than 120 of them children, in eastern Ghouta, a ring of suburbs a 10-minute drive from the capital.
Scenes of bloodied bodies in shrouds were repeated in eastern Ghouta on Sunday, although the death toll was still lower by midday than the preceding days. Seven civilian deaths were documented by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. People in Damascus reported a reduced intesity of shelling on Sunday.
On the outskirts of eastern Ghouta, activists said a ground battle was being waged between the largely Islamist groups controlling the suburbs and pro-government forces trying to storm the area.
“So far, they have repelled the government attacks,” said Mohammed Adel, a citizen journalist in eastern Ghouta, who added that the rebels had captured and killed several combatants.
For three days, the UN Security Council was unable to pass a resolution demanding a halt to hostilities. Washington blamed Russia for stalling but Moscow’s envoy said clearer mechanisms were needed to implement a truce. The resulting resolution approved by all 15 member states on Saturday was a watered-down version that did not stipulate a start date for a ceasefire. Instead the resolution called only for a truce to be implemented “without delay”.
Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, called the delays a failure on the part of the entire council.
“In the three days it took us to adopt this resolution, how many mothers lost their kids to the bombing and shelling? How many more images did we need to see of fathers holding their dead children?” Ms Haley asked the members of the council. “All for nothing, because here we are, voting for a ceasefire that could have saved lives days ago.”
Eastern Ghouta is one of the last pockets held by rebels who have been fighting to topple Mr Assad since 2011, the start of Syria’s seven-year war.
In recent weeks the violence has risen sharply. In the north-west, Turkey has launched an offensive to take Afrin, a Kurdish-held enclave. Turkey says the US-backed Syrian Kurdish forces, which have carved out the enclave along its southern border, are a “terrorist group”. The forces have ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ party, which has fought an insurgency against Ankara for more than 30 years.
On Sunday, Czech authorities detained Salih Muslim, a leader of the PYD, the political branch of Syria’s Kurdish forces, in Prague. PYD officials privately confirmed the detention but said it was unclear whether he would be extradited to Turkey, which has offered a $1m bounty for what it says is a “most wanted” terrorist.
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