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Thousands stream out of Syrian rebel enclave as army advances

A boy stands on the rubble of a damaged building at the besieged town of Douma

Thousands of Syrians fled a rebel-held town in eastern Ghouta on Thursday and crossed by foot to government territory, a Reuters witness and a war monitor said, as the army pressed its advance into the last major opposition stronghold near Damascus.

Men, women and children carrying blankets, bags and suitcases walked along a dirt road towards army positions on the outskirts of Hammouriyeh town, footage on state TV showed.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitor, said at least 7,000 people left Hammouriyeh town towards positions of advancing government forces, which had split eastern Ghouta into three separate pockets.

It marked the first time a large group of people fled the enclave since Damascus launched an offensive to recapture it last month, Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman said.

Earlier this week, scores of sick and wounded people were evacuated from eastern Ghouta.

In an offensive that began nearly a month ago, Syrian government forces have splintered rebel territory in eastern Ghouta, which had been the largest insurgent bastion near the capital.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said 25 aid trucks entered a pocket further north, controlled by rebel faction Jaish al-Islam, and was headed to the town of Douma.

ICRC spokeswoman Iolanda Jaquemet said the convoy, which entered through the al-Wafideen crossing, contained enough food aid for 26,100 people for one month, among other items.

The convoy contained 5,220 ICRC food parcels and 5,220 World Food Programme flour bags, Jaquemet said. A parcel can feed a family of five for one month.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said overnight dozens of air strikes and shelling hit eastern Ghouta’s southern pocket.

Moscow and Damascus say their forces only target armed militants and seek to stop mortar attacks by insurgents that killed dozens of people in the capital. They accuse the rebels of using civilians as human shields, which the fighters deny.

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