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77 dead as Syria enclave pounded ahead of expected ground assault

Hammuriyeh, Syria | AFP | Heavy Syrian bombardment killed at least 77 civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta on Monday, a monitor said, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault.

The escalation came as pro-government forces were also expected to enter the northern Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin, to take a stand against a month-old Turkish assault there.

Held by rebels since 2012, Eastern Ghouta is the last opposition pocket around Damascus and President Bashar al-Assad has dispatched reinforcements there in an apparent concerted effort to retake it.

As the United Nations decried the “senseless human suffering”, a barrage of air strikes, rocket fire and artillery slammed into several towns across Eastern Ghouta on Monday.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 20 children were among 77 civilians killed in the assault, while around 300 other people were wounded.

“The regime is bombing Eastern Ghouta to pave the way for a ground offensive,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

The main opposition National Coalition, which is based in Turkey, denounced the “war of extermination” in Eastern Ghouta as well as the “international silence”.

In a statement, it also accused regime ally Russia of seeking to “bury the political process” for a solution to the conflict.

Residents of Hammuriyeh could be seen rushing indoors in panic as soon as they heard the sound of jets.

Alaa al-Din, a 23-year-old Syrian in Hammuriyeh, said civilians were afraid of a potential government offensive.

“Ghouta’s fate is unknown. We’ve got nothing but God’s mercy and hiding out in our basements,” he told AFP. “There’s no alternative.”

– Wailing children –

Shelling also hit the town of Douma, where an AFP correspondent saw five toddlers brought to a hospital, covered in dust and wailing uncontrollably.

The hospital was full of distraught civilians: one father slapped his forehead after finding his two dead children, another erupted into tears as he discovered the body of his newborn on a purple sheet next to a pool of blood.

Eastern Ghouta is held by two main Islamist factions, while jihadists control small pockets including one directly adjacent to the capital.

The Observatory and Syrian daily newspaper Al-Watan had said negotiations were under way for the evacuation of jihadists from Eastern Ghouta.

But escalating military pressure indicate that the regime would opt for a ground assault instead of talks, the monitor said.

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