Syrian army launches attack on Islam Army in Eastern Ghouta after talks fails

Li Jiayao

DAMASCUS, April 6 (Xinhua) -- The Syrian government forces launched a ground offensive on the district of Douma in the capital Damascus' Eastern Ghouta countryside on Friday, after the breakdown of talks on the evacuation of the militants and their families toward northern Syria.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Syrian forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, unleashed a ground offensive on the Islam Army in the Douma district from two directions.

A total of 300 airstrikes and aerial bombardment targeted Douma on Friday, a day after the fourth batch of the Islam Army rebels and their families refused to leave Douma as planned in the agreement reached recently between the rebel group and the Russian and Syrian sides.

The pro-rebel watchdog group said intense battles are raging between the Islam Army and the Syrian government forces, with heavy shelling from the Syrian forces and the Russians on Douma.

The Syrian forces launched their offensives on Douma from the Rehan farmland area east of Douma and the town of Mesraba southwest of Douma, it added.

It placed the death toll of the airstrikes and shelling in Douma at 32.

Meanwhile, state news agency SANA said the Republican Guard of the Syrian army started entering the farmlands of Douma on Friday, accusing the rebels of undermining the agreement by not evacuating the district, firing mortar shells on the capital and refusing to release kidnapped people.

The Syrian forces have entered the farmlands on the outskirts of Douma, said SANA, adding that four people were killed by rebels' mortar attack on Damascus on Friday.

Meanwhile, the state-run al-Ekhbariah TV said the Syrian Air Force and artillery started pounding the defense lines of the Islam Army as well as the mortar launchers before entering Douma's farmlands from several directions.

In an earlier report, the Observatory said the Islam Army was discussing a new deal with Russians and the Syrian side after suspending evacuation and release of kidnapped people.

According to the report, the Islam Army put forward new suggestions to the Russians, mainly about remaining in Douma with their weapons.

The new proposition also touches upon the situation of the Islam Army in Douma and other pockets where they still have a presence such as the Eastern Qalamoun region and southern Damascus.

Afterward, the Observatory released what it called was the Russian response to the Islam Army's demands.

The Russians urged the militants to surrender their heavy weaponry in a three-day timeframe.

Those who lay down their arms will have his record cleared and will be enlisted in the local police force the Russians will form in Douma.

After clearing the records of the militants, a police battalion will be formed in Douma from the fighters of the Islam Army, which will receive Russian-made weapons and take part in the battles against the al-Qaida-linked militants as well as the Islam State (IS) south of Damascus.

But the negotiations apparently didn't reach a good end, which explains the renewed attacks.

A day earlier, the fourth batch, which was supposed to leave, was suspended, and buses left Douma for the nearby highway to wait for a decision to be made regarding the evacuation process.

Activists said the Islam Army rebels are having difficulties when crossing to areas under the Turkish control in northern Syria on their way to Jarablus, a city in northern Syria near the Turkish border, which is the designated destination of the Islam Army.

SANA blamed the suspension of the evacuation on the inner conflict among Islam Army rebels.

A total of 2,963 militants and their families evacuated Douma in three batches over the past few days under a deal concluded between the Islam Army and the Syrian government forces under a Russian mediation.

Douma is the last rebel-held area in Eastern Ghouta, after other towns in the sprawling countryside have seen the evacuation of 43,000 rebels and their families toward Idlib Province in northwestern Syria.

The Syrian army launched a massive operation in February on the rebels in Eastern Ghouta and secured the evacuation of 150,000 civilians who were hosted in government-run shelters until the situation settles in their areas in Eastern Ghouta for their return.

SANA said on Friday that 50,000 of the people of Eastern Ghouta returned to their homes.



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