Thousands of Syrians take to the roads as battles rage on

Civilians flee two offensives as war enters its eighth year

ARBIN (Syria) • Thousands of terrified Syrian civilians fled for their lives yesterday, seeking to escape two raging offensives in a rebel bastion outside Damascus and a north-western Kurdish enclave.

Syria's civil war last week entered its eighth year, with world powers unable to stem a complex conflict that has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced at least half the country's population.

Tens of thousands have taken to the roads as Russia-backed regime fighters advance against rebels in Eastern Ghouta outside the capital, and Turkey-led forces press an assault in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin.

Air strikes killed at least 30 civilians in the town of Zamalka in Eastern Ghouta yesterday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported.

The fresh bombardment came as around 10,000 people streamed out of the last rebel bastion on the capital's doorstep yesterday, the Britain-based war monitor said.

Regime forces have retaken 70 per cent of Eastern Ghouta since Feb 18, carving it up into three shrinking pockets held by different rebels.

The regime assault has killed more than 1,390 civilians in the enclave, according to the Observatory, which relies on a network of sources on the ground.

Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said warplanes targeted civilians in Zamalka as they prepared to flee the southern area of the enclave held by the Faylaq al-Rahman rebel group.

More than 40,000 civilians have poured out of Eastern Ghouta since last Thursday, fleeing air strikes and advancing troops.

Yesterday, Syrian state television showed dozens of civilians trudging along a road leading into regime-held territory, dragging suitcases, clutching blankets and wearing thick winter coats. Some carried heavy sacks and children on their shoulders. Civilians who have arrived in government-controlled territory have complained of having nowhere to sleep.

Since 2013, Eastern Ghouta's estimated 400,000 residents had lived under government siege, facing severe food and medicine shortages.

Meanwhile, in north-western Syria, more than 200,000 civilians have escaped their homes in the Kurdish-majority city of Afrin in less than three days, the Observatory said. Yesterday, a Turkish air strike killed 11 civilians in the city as they were preparing to leave, it said.

The monitor says more than 280 civilians have been killed since the Afrin battle began, but Ankara has denied the reports. "There was fierce fighting throughout the night on the northern outskirts of the city as the Turkish forces and their Syrian allies tried to break into the city," the Observatory said.

Turkey and its Syrian Arab rebel allies have waged a nearly two-month offensive on the Afrin enclave, which is held by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).

Last week, they largely surrounded the enclave's sole city, although a single escape route remains open to the south to territory still held by the YPG.

Turkey says the YPG is a "terrorist" offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has been waging a decades-long insurgency inside Turkey.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 18, 2018, with the headline 'Thousands of Syrians take to the roads as battles rage on'. Print Edition | Subscribe