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Tuesday June 25th, 2019 8:00PM

New strikes kill 10 in rebel-held suburbs of Syrian capital

By The Associated Press
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BEIRUT (AP) — New airstrikes and shelling of the besieged, rebel-held suburbs of the Syrian capital killed at least 10 people and wounded dozens more on Wednesday, a rescue organization and a monitoring group said, adding to a staggering casualty toll that has overwhelmed paramedics and doctors in the past few days.

Syrian government forces and Russian aircraft have shown no signs of letting up their indiscriminate aerial and artillery assault on eastern Ghouta since they stepped up strikes late Sunday as part of a seemingly new, determined push to recapture the territory which has been controlled by rebels since 2012.

At least 260 people have been killed since Sunday night, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights group which closely monitors the fighting through activists on the ground, including 10 in a wave of strikes on the town of Kafr Batna on Wednesday.

The Syrian Civil Defense search-and-rescue group, also known as the White Helmets, said government forces targeted the town with airstrikes, artillery fire, and barrel bombs — crude, explosives-filled oil drums dropped from helicopters at high altitudes. It reported that several other people were wounded.

The locally-run Ghouta Media Center reported strikes on Kafr Batna and other towns in the region outside Damascus.

A Syrian doctor working as an anesthesiologist at a hospital in the town of Zamalka, part of the eastern Ghouta region, said the number of casualties from the government's air blitz is overwhelming the hospitals there.

Waleed Awata said his small hospital, with just 17 beds, received 82 patients Tuesday night.

"We had to give them IVs and treat them on the floor," he told The Associated Press. He said the hospital received the bodies of four killed in Wednesday's shelling, including two women and two children.

The 44-year-old physician added that the hospital was struck by barrel bombs on Tuesday, as well as sporadic artillery fire. Like many hospitals in the area, patients have been moved into the basement, to shield them from airstrikes. No one was hurt but the hospital's generator, water tanks and several ambulances were damaged.

Awata said in the last two days, three of the main bakeries for eastern Ghouta were damaged and production was halted. The roads are impassable because of the severity of the bombardment and the rubble on the streets, he added.

The U.N.'s regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria, Panos Moumtzis, said he is "alarmed" by the very high number of casualties. "You cannot continue business as usual," he told the AP Wednesday.

"Ghouta is a 10-mile drive from the hospitals in Damascus and its heartbreaking to think of children, women, and elderly who are in need, unable to be evacuated, and in a situation of fear, hiding in basements and not being able to go out," he added by phone from Amman, Jordan.

The Russian military is supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces and was instrumental to the all-out assault on the eastern half of Syria's largest city, Aleppo, in late 2016 to eject rebels from their enclave there.

Tens of thousands of civilians ended up fleeing their homes. Many have been unable to return. Hundreds more were killed in indiscriminate shelling and bombardment. A subsequent U.N. investigation charged that the campaign amounted to forced displacement of a population and rose to the level of a war crime.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said earlier this week eastern Aleppo could serve as a model for eastern Ghouta. He also said the Syrian government's assault on eastern Ghouta was necessary to uproot al-Qaida-linked militants from the area.

On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected allegations that the Russian military is responsible for civilians casualties in eastern Ghouta, calling such claims "unfounded."

He was responding to U.S. and others allegations that Russia shares responsibility for the casualties in eastern Ghouta along with Syria.

Pro-government forces have been amassing since the weekend on the perimeter of the rebel-held region, a collection of towns and farmland that once provided grain and fruit to Damascus, before nearly seven years of warfare turned it into a landscape of havoc and despair.

At least 400,000 people have been killed in Syria's civil war, sparked by a violent crackdown on popular demonstrations against Assad in 2011.

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