Air strikes killed dozens of people in eastern Ghouta on Friday and Syrians fled rebel territory toward government positions for a second day, a war monitor said, as the government pressed its advance on the biggest opposition bastion near Damascus.
On another front in the multi-sided Syrian war, Turkish forces shelled the northern Kurdish-held town of Afrin heavily, killing at least 18 people and forcing 2,500 people to flee, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor reported.
The Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, the stated target of the Afrin offensive, said it battled Turkish forces and their Syrian militia allies that tried to storm the town from the north.
The Syrian war entered its eighth year this week having killed half a million people and driven more than 11 million from their homes, including nearly 6 million who have fled abroad in one of the worst refugee crises of modern times.
The two main battles under way now are the government’s assault on eastern Ghouta, which began a month ago, and the Turkish assault on Afrin, launched in January.
In both cases, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been trapped inside areas encircled on the battlefield.
Backed by Russia and Iran, government forces have thrust deep into eastern Ghouta, splintering the area into three separate enclaves. The United Nations believes up to 400,000 people have been trapped inside the rebel-held area of densely populated farms and satellite towns on the outskirts of the capital, with virtually no access to food or medicine.
Moscow and Damascus accuse the rebels of having forced people to stay in harm’s way to use them as human shields. The rebels deny this and say the aim of the government assault is to depopulate opposition areas.
The Observatory said air strikes in eastern Ghouta killed 31 people in the town of Kafr Batna and another 10 people in Saqba. It said Russian aircraft had carried out the strikes. Syrians believe they can distinguish Russian aircraft from those of the Syrian army because the Russians fly at higher altitude.
Russian news agencies reported that around 3,300 people had left eastern Ghouta on Friday morning. The Observatory put the early figure at several hundred.
Many thousands fled the southernmost of the three Ghouta pockets on Thursday, the first mass exodus from the area since the government unleashed one of the deadliest offensives of the war. Russia said more than 12,000 people left on Thursday.
Syrian state TV showed footage of men women and children it said had left the enclave through a corridor in the town of Hammouriyeh on Friday. Women and children waved to the camera.
The eastern Ghouta town of Douma, where many people are sheltering, has been spared the worst of the shelling in recent days, a resident said.
The Ghouta and Afrin campaigns have both continued despite a UN Security Council demand for a ceasefire. Moscow and Damascus argue the enemies they target in Ghouta are terrorists unprotected by the truce. Turkey says the same of the Kurdish YPG militia it is fighting in Afrin.
The foreign ministers of Turkey, Iran and Russia convened a meeting in the Kazakh capital Astana to discuss the situation in Syria. The three states last year agreed to contain the conflict on several fronts with “de-escalation zones”, while simultaneously pursuing own military objectives in Syria.
Turkey wants to crush the YPG which it views as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency in Turkey. The United States views the YPG as a valuable partner in its war against Islamic State in Syria.
Birusk Hasakeh, the YPG spokesman in Afrin, said the Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel militia allies were trying to storm Afrin from the north on Friday.
The YPG and its all-female affiliate, the YPJ, were waging battles against the attacking forces.
“They are shelling in order to storm (Afrin),” Hasakeh said by phone. The shelling had killed 18 people and more people were believed to be trapped under rubble, he said.
The spokesman for Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday that Turkey expected its forces and rebel allies to clear Afrin town of militants “very soon”.
The Turkish military said on Friday it had sent a note to militants in the Afrin region urging them to surrender and abandon the “terrorist organisation”. “A future filled with calm and peace awaits you in Afrin,” it said.