Thousands of civilians have fled advances by Syrian government forces in eastern Ghouta in the last two days, a war monitor and a resident said, as Damascus makes rapid gains against the last major rebel enclave near the capital.
Government forces need to advance just a few more kilometres (miles) further to split the enclave in two, said a commander in the alliance that backs President Bashar al-Assad.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government forces had seized around a quarter of eastern Ghouta in a ground assault that began on Feb. 27, building on a ferocious air and artillery bombardment that has killed hundreds.
One of the main insurgent groups in eastern Ghouta, Jaish al-Islam, said the“scorched earth policy” had forced rebels to retreat and regroup, but vowed to recover lost territory.
A U.N. humanitarian official said 400,000 people in eastern Ghouta were being subjected to unacceptable“collective punishment”, which is illegal under the Geneva Conventions.
The official called for the implementation of a 30-day ceasefire demanded by the U.N. Security Council a week ago. U.S. President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Thursday for its immediate implementation.
With the war entering its eighth year, capturing the eastern Ghouta area would be a major victory for Assad, who has steadily recovered control of rebellious areas with military support from Russia and Iran.
The multi-sided Syrian war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people since 2011, has escalated on several fronts this year, as the collapse of Islamic State has given way to other conflicts between Syrian and international parties.
Turkey, backed by allied Syrian militias, has gained ground in recent days against the Kurdish YPG militia in an offensive it is waging in northwestern Syria.
The UK-based Observatory, which reports on the war using what it describes as a wide range of on-the-ground sources, said the advances threaten to encircle Afrin city, where 1 million people are estimated to live.
It says shelling and air strikes have killed 659 people in eastern Ghouta since Feb. 18, making the offensive one of the deadliest of the war, while rebel shelling of Damascus has killed 27.
Orient TV, which supports the opposition, said advances by pro-Assad forces had triggered large-scale displacement.
One resident estimated that thousands of people were on the move and seeking shelter in areas further from the frontlines.
The Observatory estimated that between 300 to 400 families, which is likely several thousand people, had fled areas seized by government forces since Saturday.
The pro-Assad commander said civilians were fleeing to the town of Douma.“There are about three and a bit kilometres (to go) and they will cut (eastern Ghouta) in two,” the commander told reporters.
The White Helmets rescue service in eastern Ghouta posted footage on its Facebook page showing rescue workers carrying away on a stretcher a man they said had been wounded in an air strike in Douma.
Gunfire was audible during a broadcast by a Syrian state television journalist from a position he said had been captured by the advancing forces.
The Syrian army said it had been attacking rebel positions for the last two days in response to the shelling of Damascus and had recovered control of farmland and towns.
The Observatory said the territory captured so far by the Syrian army was mostly farmland and the big towns of eastern Ghouta were still in rebel hands.