Syrian army preparing assault to end rebel siege of base east of capital

A government forces plane flies over the al-Mushrifa area, near the town of Khan Sheikun in Syria's northwestern rebel-held province of Idlib, during ongoing clashes between opposition fighters and government forces on Tuesday. (AFP)
Updated 03 January 2018
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Syrian army preparing assault to end rebel siege of base east of capital

AMMAN: The Syrian army backed by Russian jets escalated bombing of the last rebel bastion on the eastern outskirts of Damascus as they prepared to break a siege of an army base encircled by opposition forces, residents and witnesses said on Wednesday.
They said the army was amassing elite forces to prepare for a major assault on the Military Vehicles Administration, which is besieged by rebels. At least 200 troops were believed to be trapped within its sprawling, heavily defended grounds.
Since Sunday, rebels mainly belonging to the Islamist Ahrar al Sham faction widened their control of parts of the army base in Harasta that penetrates the Eastern Ghouta, the last rebel bastion around the capital.
They stormed the base last November in a drive to relieve pressure on Eastern Ghouta’s towns and villages, which have seen escalating aerial attacks in the last week.
State media did not report the assault but said “terrorists” had fired mortars on residential areas in Harasta and the army responded by strikes in Eastern Ghouta that led to losses in the ranks of the insurgents. No further details were given.
Civil defense sources said that in four days of heavy aerial strikes since Friday 38 civilians have been killed and at least 147 people have been injured. Five civilians were killed on Tuesday.
The base has long been used to strike at the densely populated Eastern Ghouta in an attempt to force the rebel enclave to submission. More than 300,000 people there have lived under siege by army troops since 2013.
The advances bring rebels closer to the heart of the capital once again, after they were pushed out of their remaining pockets last year by months of siege and bombardment.
The army setback comes against a backdrop of successive battlefield victories that allowed the Syrian army with heavy reliance on Russia and Iran to regain in the last year large tracts of territory from insurgents.
Residents said at least 30 aerial strikes hit residential areas of Eastern Ghouta on Tuesday. Shelling of a market in the city of Douma, the main urban center in the Ghouta, left one dead and scores injured.
“The frontlines of Ghouta are witnessing battles and clashes and big losses inflicted on (Syrian President) Assad’s forces and his militias,” said Hamza Biriqdar, the spokesman for Jaish al Islam, a main rebel faction.
Further northwest, rebels ranging from jihadists to mainstream Free Syrian Army (FSA) were retreating from more villages seized by the army in southern Idlib province and the adjoining eastern Hama countryside.
The strikes have escalated in the last week on this major front with at least 50 villages retaken by the Syrian army and its allies in their push into the last major province in rebel hands that borders Turkey.
The intensity of strikes by Russia and the Syrian Air Force has driven tens of thousands of villagers in these areas to flee to the relative safety of the northern part of Idlib province near of the Turkish border, where many families have spread makeshift tents on main roads and agricultural land.


Gaza field hospitals prepare for another day of bloodshed

Updated 44 min 31 sec ago
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Gaza field hospitals prepare for another day of bloodshed

  • At least 33 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since the ‘Great March of Return’ began last month
  • Gaza suffers from a lack of medical facilities and supplies as a result of an 11-year land, sea and air blockade by Israeli forces

GAZA: A tent consisting of nine beds and some basic medical equipment is all that will serve as a field hospital in the Zeitoun area of Gaza when Palestinians gather at the Israeli border to take part in a mass protest against the occupation on Friday.

Eleven doctors and 12 nurses work at the facility during what has become a weekly ritual of defiance and bloodshed for the people of this besieged coastal enclave. With access to only rudimentary supplies, the staff must deal with injuries caused by live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas.

When Arab News visited the hospital southeast of Gaza City last week the sound of ambulances rushing back and forth was almost non-stop as the medics worked tirelessly amid the chaos. But no one expects any respite in the month ahead, with the protesters due to return every Friday until mid-May.

“In one hour we have received more than 30 injuries, about 26 of which are to the lower limbs and from live bullets,” said Khalil Siam, a doctor who works at the hospital from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m.

Gaza’s “Great March of Return” began on March 30, when tens of thousands of protesters traveled in buses from across the strip to five locations along the Israeli border. 

The demonstration was timed to coincide with “Land Day,” an annual event when Palestinians remember the deaths of six Arab citizens killed by Israeli forces during demonstrations over land confiscations in northern Israel in 1976. It is due to continue until May 15, when Palestinians commemorate the Nakba, or catastrophe — the creation of
Israel.

On the first day of the protest at least 17 Palestinians were killed and more than 1,000 were injured as Israeli troops opened fire on the huge crowds, causing the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to call for “an independent and transparent investigation.”

Then on April 6 several more Palestinians were killed as protesters threw stones and set fire to piles of tires at the border, sending thick clouds of black smoke spiralling into the air.

A handful of field hospitals run by both volunteers and government doctors have been set up to deal with the constant stream of casualties each Friday, but they struggle to cope. Protesters critically wounded in the upper part of the body are rushed straight to Gaza’s main hospitals but staff here also find themselves increasingly overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the bloodshed.

According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, a total of 33 Palestinians have been killed and 4,300 have been injured between the start of the protests last month and April 14. Thirteen of the casualties have required amputations.

Even before the demonstrations began, Gaza suffered from a lack of medical facilities and supplies as a result of an 11-year land, sea and air blockade by Israeli forces and ongoing divisions between the two main Palestinian political factions, Fatah and Hamas.

Ashraf Al-Qidra, a spokesman for the Ministry of Health in Gaza, told Arab News that all hospitals were facing a situation of “severe attrition.”

“A large number of drugs and medical items have been drained from emergency departments, operating rooms and intensive care units due to the large number of casualties,” he said.

The Israeli government initially refused to allow injured protesters to be moved to the occupied West Bank until Israel’s High Court ruled unanimously on Monday that Yousef Al-Karnaz, a 19-year-old Palestinian, should be allowed to receive urgent medical care in Ramallah.

Al-Karnaz was shot and wounded by Israeli troops on March 30 but was not allowed to leave the strip. As a result, his left leg was amputated.

Ismail Al-Jadbah, director of the vascular department at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, told Arab News that the strip had enough doctors to cope with the casualties but lacked the necessary resources to give them the best possible care.

“In addition to a shortage of medicine, the large number of injured has put a great burden on us. Treating injuries in the right way, and in the right time, is very difficult,” he said.