Syria regime pounds rebel enclave, sends fighters to face Turkey

Syria: Regime air strikes on Wednesday pushed the death toll from three days of bombing in Syria's rebel Eastern Ghouta to over 200 as Damascus pitched pro-government forces into the fray against Turkey in a Kurdish-held border region.

The pro-regime fighters came under bombardment from Turkey after entering the northern Afrin region, escalating a month-long offensive by Ankara in another major twist for Syria's complex near-seven-year war.

To the south on the outskirts of Damascus, air strikes and rocket and artillery fire have battered the Eastern Ghouta enclave since Sunday in apparent preparation for a government ground assault on the besieged region.

More than 200 civilians have been killed, among them 57 children, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

On Tuesday alone, 127 civilians, including 39 children, were killed in the bombardment - the single bloodiest day for Eastern Ghouta in four years.

Air strikes on Wednesday morning killed at least 66 civilians, including 15 children, the Britain-based war monitor said.

Held by rebels since 2012, Eastern Ghouta is the last opposition pocket around Damascus and President Bashar al-Assad is keen to retake it with an apparently imminent ground assault.

The UN's regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Panos Moumtzis, said the targeting of civilians in the enclave "must stop now".

"The humanitarian situation of civilians in East Ghouta is spiraling out of control. It's imperative to end this senseless human suffering now," he said on Monday.

The UN has repeatedly called for a month-long ceasefire across Syria's front lines, from Eastern Ghouta to the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in the northwest, which Turkey threatened today to lay siege to in the coming days.

"February 19 was one of the worst days that we've ever had in the history of this crisis," said an exhausted doctor in a hospital in Eastern Ghouta.

Identifying himself as Abu al-Yasar, he described treating a one-year-old brought into the Arbin hospital with blue skin and a faint pulse, rescued from under the rubble.

"I opened his mouth to put in a breathing tube and I found it packed with dirt," Abu al-Yasar told AFP.

He pulled out the dirt as fast as possible, put in the breathing tube and managed to save the baby's life.

"This is just one story from among hundreds of wounded."

The bloodshed prompted the UN children's agency UNICEF to issue a largely blank statement today saying it "we no longer have the words to describe children's suffering."

Syria's main opposition group condemned the government onslaught as a "bloodbath" and a "war crime", saying it may pull out of UN-backed peace talks in protest.

More than 400,000 people live in Eastern Ghouta, which has been surrounded by government troops since 2013. Food, medicine, and other basic necessities are nearly impossible to obtain.

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Eastern Ghouta is mostly held by two hardline rebel groups - Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman - though jihadists have a smaller foothold.

The factions often fire rockets and mortar rounds into residential neighbourhoods of east Damascus.

On Wednesday, at least four people were killed and 15 wounded by rebel fire on the capital, state television reported.

Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the government, said on Wednesday that the bombing campaign "comes ahead of a vast operation on Ghouta, which may start on the ground at any moment."

Both Al-Watan and the Observatory had earlier reported ongoing negotiations for the withdrawal of jihadists from the enclave. -PTI

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