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Syria's Assad: Offensive Against East Ghouta Rebels Will Continue

By Ken Bredemeier March 04, 2018

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad vowed Sunday that his military's offensive against rebels in East Ghouta would continue, even in the face of criticism from U.S. and British leaders that he is creating a humanitarian disaster.

"The operation against terrorism must continue, while at the same time civilians will continue to have the possibility" to evacuate from the war zone, Assad told journalists in remarks aired on state television.

"There is no contradiction between a truce and combat operations," he said. "The progress achieved yesterday and the day before in Ghouta by the Syrian Arab Army was made during this truce."

But U.S. President Donald Trump and British leader Theresa May agreed Sunday that Russia and Syria are responsible for the "heart-breaking human suffering" in Eastern Ghouta outside the capital of Damascus, the prime minister's office said.

The two leaders discussed in a telephone call what May's office described as the "appalling humanitarian situation," even as the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian forces had seized control of more than a quarter of Eastern Ghouta.

"They agreed it was a humanitarian catastrophe, and that the overwhelming responsibility for the heart-breaking human suffering lay with the Syrian regime and Russia, as the regime's main backer," May's office said. There was no immediate White House statement on the phone call.

"Russia and others with influence over the Syrian regime must act now to cease their campaign of violence and to protect civilians," May and Trump agreed, her office said.

The Syrian advance has come after 15 days of airstrikes on the rebels, along with artillery fire and rocket attacks, with more than 640 civilians killed in the fighting.

A demand by the United Nations Security Council for a 30-day truce, which Russia voted for, has been widely ignored, even as Moscow initiated a daily five-hour "humanitarian pause" for civilians to escape and aid to be delivered. The U.N. said it would deliver 46 truckloads of humanitarian aid to the Eastern Ghouta enclave on Monday and enough food for 27,500 people.

In another phone call, French President Emmanuel Macron urged Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to exert "necessary pressure" on Assad to halt "indiscriminate" attacks on civilians in Eastern Ghouta.

Macron's office said Tehran bore "particular responsibility for Iran, because of its ties to the (Syrian) regime, regarding the implementation of the humanitarian truce" sought by the U.N.

"The two presidents expressed their agreement to work together in the coming days along with the U.N., in conjunction with the Damascus regime and the main countries involved in Syria, to secure results on the ground, supply necessary aid to civilians and implement an effective cease-fire," Macron's office said.

The Syrian Observatory monitoring group said Syrian troops had advanced to within three kilometers of Douma, the main town in Eastern Ghouta, retaking "more than 25 percent" of the region in operations mostly run through farmlands.

The Observatory said at least 12 regime fighters had been killed in overnight clashes. But on Saturday, it said that 18 civilians, including three children, had been killed in regime bombardment of the region.



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