Syrian army starts shelling IS positions south of Damascus

Hugh Fox
April 22, 2018

Now that the eastern Ghouta rebels have surrendered, the area is under government control, and a team of global inspectors has so far been unable to reach it.

Worldwide inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) who arrived in Damascus almost a week ago were still waiting early on Friday to visit the site of the suspected poison gas attack.

Physicians for Human Rights, a US-based rights group, voiced "grave concern" over reports that Douma hospital staff had faced "extreme intimidation" after the area came back under government control to stop them talking about the incident.

The IS entered those areas in 2015 and the military operation started after the army completely secured the Eastern Ghouta countryside of Damascus, with the last rebel batch left their last strongholds in the Douma district a week ago. Fighters in another enclave nearby - Eastern Qalamoun - said they had also agreed to withdraw.

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The area is much smaller than the eastern Ghouta region that Syrian government forces recently recovered in a Russian-backed offensive.

Western countries say Moscow and Damascus are preventing the inspectors from reaching the site and may be destroying evidence.

The reported move comes as President Bashar al-Assad accelerates his push to retake remaining enclaves and strengthen his position around the capital following the defeat of rebels in eastern Ghouta this month.

The months-long talks in northern Homs, part of broader Russian efforts to force rebels to make peace with the government, do not at this stage involve an evacuation of fighters from that rebel enclave.

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"We estimate that there were about 6,000 Palestine refugee civilians in Yarmouk and about 6,000 in the surrounding areas", said Chris Gunness, spokesperson for the UN Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA.

For weeks, Syrian forces have been launching air attacks on the militant-held zone, which was home to Syria's largest Palestinian refugee community before the fighting began.

Referring to the latest evacuations, the United Nations said in a note it expected further displacements soon to northern Syria.

Syrian state media reported that missiles had again targeted an airbase overnight, but the commander in the regional military alliance backing the government, speaking on condition of anonymity, later told Reuters it was a false alarm.

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Most Islamic State fighters were driven out of Syria a year ago. On Thursday neighbouring Iraq carried out air strikes against the jihadist group in Syria in coordination with Damascus, the Iraqi military said.

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