Mass exodus from Ghouta amid Syrian regime advance
By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo
Thousands of civilians fled Eastern Ghouta on Thursday (March 15th) as Syrian regime and allied forces advanced towards Hammouriya amid intense shelling and airstrikes, local activists said.
Airstrikes on the opposition enclave killed at least 57 civilians on Friday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said the strikes were carried out by Russian warplanes on the Saqba and Kfar Batna areas, in the south of the splintered enclave, AFP reported.
Regime forces were able to impose almost full control over Hammouriya and its surrounding areas after advancing to its outskirts Thursday, local activist Mohammed al-Beik told Diyaruna.
But by Friday, extremist groups which have dominated this area of the enclave over the past few years retook much of the town, the Observatory said.
"Tahrir al-Sham and Faylaq al-Rahman have almost completely retaken the town but fighting continues on the outskirts," it said, noting that few residents remain in Hammouriya itself.
Elsewhere, however, it said the regime overran al-Rihan town in an assault led by Russian officers and advisers.
Hundreds of civilians were able to escape from Hammouriya and neighbouring towns after a night al-Beik described as "hellish" because of the intensity of the shelling and airstrikes.
Meanwhile, regime forces advanced in al-Qadam district after reaching an agreement with fighters in the area, mostly from Tahrir al-Sham and its ally Ajnad al-Sham, who withdrew towards Idlib, he said.
But "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) elements infiltrated from nearby areas to the vacated area in al-Qadam, which sparked clashes between them and the regime and its allies, with fighting ongoing between the two sides on Thursday.
Initial reports indicate a large number of fighters on both sides were killed.
Mass exodus from Ghouta
Al-Beik said a way out was opened for hundreds of civilians on Thursday after Syrian activists made mass appeals via social media as regime forces advanced and fears mounted over potential massacres of civilians.
The fleeing civilians were transported to shelters in regime-controlled areas near Damascus, while others headed for the regime-controlled city of Daraa.
The Observatory said nearly 20,000 people fled the enclave in 24 hours before the flow stopped on Thursday evening, AFP reported.
It called the exodus "the largest displacement since the beginning of the assault on Ghouta".
The UN said it was trying to determine how many people have left the enclave.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and UN were able to bring a new aid convoy into the city of Douma, carrying food and medical aid for 25,000 civilians, al-Beik said.
"This is just a little of what these families need," said the ICRC, which delivered the aid alongside the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the UN.
Twenty-five trucks were delivering food parcels and flour bags to hunger-stricken Douma residents when mortar rounds hit nearby.
Aid workers scrambled for cover, AFP reported, but were able to resume deliveries shortly afterwards.