DAMASCUS (AFP) – The Syrian army on Saturday (April 14) declared that all anti-regime forces had left Eastern Ghouta, nearly two months into a blistering offensive on the rebel enclave on the outskirts of the capital.
“All terrorists have left Douma, the last of their holdouts in Eastern Ghouta,” state news agency Sana quoted an army spokesman as saying, using the regime’s usual term for rebels.
“Areas of Eastern Ghouta in rural Damascus have been fully cleansed of terrorism,” an army spokesman also said in a statement delivered on state television.
The announcement comes after a massive assault launched by Syrian government and allied forces on Feb 18 to retake the enclave, which had been out of regime control since 2012.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, at least 1,700 civilians have been killed in bombardment on the enclave in eight weeks.
Douma is the main town in what at the start of the year was a sprawling semi-rural area just east of Damascus, home to almost 400,000 inhabitants.
The regime has been accused of carrying out a chemical weapons attack last week on the town of Douma, the final part of the enclave where rebels were balking at a Russian-brokered deal to evacuate them to northern Syria.
The United States, France and Britain responded Saturday with pre-dawn strikes on alleged regime chemical weapons sites.
A team of experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is currently in Damascus and expected to investigate the site of the alleged chemical attack.
President Bashar al-Assad had made the reconquest of Eastern Ghouta a strategic goal.
Dozens of civilians in government-controlled central Damascus have also been killed by rockets and mortar rounds fired from Eastern Ghouta by the rebel groups that held it.
The aerial blitz the regime and Russia launched in mid-February has caused extensive destruction in the region’s towns.
“Engineering units are starting to clear the mines and explosives sewn by the terrorists in the town to allow the rest of the units to secure the liberated areas and prepare them for the return of civilians to their homes,” the army spokesman said.
The last convoy of buses transporting members of the Islamist group Jaish al-Islam and their relatives left Douma on Saturday.
Thousands of civilians who fled the offensive have already returned to areas previously retaken by the army and allied forces.
The two-month assault on Eastern Ghouta sparked an international outcry, with the head of the United Nations describing the conditions endured by civilians there as “hell on Earth”.
Few convoys of humanitarian aid were allowed in while rights groups and aid organisations also condemned the targeting of medical facilities across the besieged territory.
A large number of Eastern Ghouta residents were bussed to the northern province of Idlib, which almost entirely escapes government control and hosts several militant and other rebel groups.