Syrian troops look to split rebel-held enclave near capital

Syrian troops look to split rebel-held enclave near capital
The Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) — Government forces advanced against rebels in the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus and will try to divide the besieged enclave in two, Syria’s state news agency said Wednesday.

The government, determined to wrest the suburbs from the control of rebels after seven years of war, has resorted to extreme levels of shelling and bombardment to clear the way for its troops to advance on the ground.

Civilians are not safe anywhere in eastern Ghouta, and aid workers who entered briefly on Monday said some residents hadn’t seen sunlight for two weeks because they were sheltering underground.

At least 800 civilians have been killed since the offensive started Feb. 18, according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights monitoring group. Russia’s military by its own admission is playing a key role supporting the assault.

SANA news agency said troops were on the outskirts of Misraba, a rebel-held town in the heart of the enclave. The state-affiliated al-Ikhbariya TV station on Wednesday broadcast live shots from the region, showing dense columns of smoke rising above the town as rockets could be heard flying overhead.

Russia’s military announced Monday it was offering safe passage for rebels and their families out of eastern Ghouta, where some 400,000 people have been trapped under a relentless government campaign of shelling and airstrikes.

Rebel spokesman Wael Olwan dismissed the offer on Tuesday, saying it was “psychological warfare.”

Olwan said Wednesday that rebels had plugged their defensive lines after they crumbled in the early days of the assault.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has urged all parties to abide by a 30-day cease-fire ordered by the Security Council on Feb. 24 to allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians in desperate need.

The Security Council is expected to meet on Wednesday to address the stillborn cease-fire.

Meanwhile, Turkey called on the United States to prevent U.S.-backed Kurdish forces from sending fighters deployed against the Islamic State group to shore up Kurdish forces battling a Turkish offensive in an enclave in northwest Syria.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman said Turkey wants the United States to “step in and prevent” the redeployment.

A spokesman for Arab militias within the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said Tuesday that as many as 1,700 fighters would be redeployed.

Turkey sent troops into the Afrin enclave on Jan. 20 to drive out Syrian Kurdish fighters it considers to be terrorists.

U.S. officials have warned that Turkey’s offensive could undermine the fight against the IS.

Erdogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalin rejected that, saying the aim was to clear Syria of all terror groups.

Meanwhile, Russia’s military said a general was among 39 people killed in the crash of a Russian military transport plane in Syria. Russian military identified him as Maj. Gen. Vladimir Yeremeyev.

The An-26 twin-engine turboprop crashed Tuesday while preparing to land at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria, killing all 33 passengers and six crew on board, the Defense Ministry said. The plane was flying from the Kweires air base near Aleppo in northern Syria to Hemeimeem, which serves as the main hub for the Russian campaign in Syria. It said the plane did not come under fire and that the crash was likely caused by a technical failure.

___

Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

.