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Syrian army makes gains in Damascus

The Syrian army seized a strategic area in the besieged rebel-held eastern Ghouta area of Damascus

Published: Updated:

The Syrian army and its allies seized a strategic area in the besieged rebel-held eastern Ghouta area of Damascus, tightening their grip on the biggest insurgent stronghold near the capital.

Opposition forces said the army stormed the town of Tel Kurdi on Sunday bringing them only a few kilometers from the city of Douma, the once sprawling urban heart of the eastern rural area of Damascus known as al Ghouta.

“After intensive battles on this front that continued more than fifty days in which the Assad militias used a scorched earth policy, the Mujahdeen were forced to retreat from the area,” said Hamza Bairqdar, the military spokesman for Jaish al Islam, the biggest rebel group in the area.

Since the start of the year, Syrian government forces and their allies, including Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, have moved into Eastern Ghouta from the south, the southwest, and the east, helped by infighting among rebel groups that control the area.

“The collapse of the fronts is due to the internal fights,” said Adnan Abdul Aziz, a lawyer in the rebel run Douma local council.

Tel Kurdi comes after a string of advances from the towns of Hosh Nasri, al Fara and before that Maydaa and Deir al-Asafir that culminated in the seizing of a southern agricultural belt.

The densely populated rural Ghouta area consists of farms and towns stretching northeast from Damascus that has been in rebel hands since the uprising began in 2011.

Securing Damascus

Several hundred thousand people are believed to be trapped in Eastern Ghouta, an action similar in scale to the 250,000 civilians under siege in Aleppo.

Government troops, backed by Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias, have been rooting out pockets of rebellion near the capital, notably taking the suburb Daraya.

Daraya's fall put pressure on other besieged rebel strongholds, boosting government hopes of subduing western and eastern suburbs of Damascus whose close proximity to Assad's seat of power posed a major threat.

Separately, in the southwest of Damascus, in an area known as the Western Ghouta, the Syrian army and its allies have severed supply lines between rebel-held Khan al Shih, a Palestinian refugee camp, and the town of Zakiya to its south. The army had earlier seized the nearby town of Deir Khabyeh.

Aleppo attacks

Meanwhile, a tank shell hit the United Nations office in western Aleppo on Sunday, damaging the top floors of a building that is well known to be the UN base in the contested Syrian city, a UN statement said on Monday.

“It is appalling that the building that houses the UN offices was directly targeted,” the top UN official in Syria, Ali Al-Za’tari, said in a statement.

“We strongly condemn the increased violence in all of Aleppo, east and west, which has resulted in the death and injury of scores of civilians, including children.”

The UN statement did not mention any people being hurt by the explosion, nor did it specify how it was known to be a tank shell, rather than any other type of munition, or which side was responsible for firing the shell.

Rebel groups have launched an assault on western Aleppo in the past few days to try to lift a siege on the eastern half of the city, where an estimated 275,000 people, and 8,000 rebels, are surrounded by forces loyal to Assad.

Over 40 people have been killed and many more wounded by rockets indiscriminately launched by non-state armed groups on civilian areas in western Aleppo, the UN statement said.