Syria army cuts off main rebel town in Ghouta as death toll tops 1,000

Smoke billows following Syrian government bombardment on the rebel-controlled town of Misraba, in the eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on March 10, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 11 March 2018
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Syria army cuts off main rebel town in Ghouta as death toll tops 1,000

DOUMA: Syrian regime forces continued their offensive against Eastern Ghouta Sunday, a day after they cut off the rebel-held enclave’s largest town, pressing on with a 20-day assault that has left more than 1,000 civilians dead.
Government troops and allied militia launched their military campaign for Eastern Ghouta on February 18 and have since overrun more than half of the area, defying global calls for a halt to the violence.
The assault has followed a divide-and-conquer strategy, eating away at rebel-held territory, and government forces on Saturday successfully isolated Ghouta’s main town of Douma in a blow for the beleaguered rebels.
Regime fighters cut off a road linking Douma with the town of Harasta further west and also captured the town of Misraba, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“Regime forces have therefore divided Eastern Ghouta into three parts — Douma and its surroundings, Harasta in the west, and the rest of the towns further south,” the Britain-based monitor said.
Shelling and air strikes slammed into Douma on Saturday, trapping residents inside their basements for hours, AFP’s correspondents in the town said.
Rescue workers and medics were struggling to navigate the town’s rubble-littered roads to bring wounded residents back to field clinics.
At least 20 civilians — including four children — were killed in Douma on Saturday, in addition to 17 civilians in other battlefront towns, said the Observatory.
The deaths raised the assault’s total toll to 1,031 civilians, including 219 children, according to the Observatory. More than 4,350 have been wounded.
Douma’s opposition-run local council issued an urgent “distress call” on Saturday to international organizations.
“The bomb shelters and basements are full, and people are sleeping in the streets and in public gardens,” the statement said.
“For three days, it has been hard to bury the dead because of the intense bombing on the cemetery,” it added.
Eastern Ghouta is the last remaining opposition-controlled zone on the outskirts of the capital, and rebels there have regularly fired rockets onto Damascus.
On Saturday, at least one child was killed and four other civilians wounded in rebel shelling on eastern districts of Damascus, according to state news agency SANA.
Rebels have tried to slow the advance with an attempted counter-offensive, but President Bashar Assad’s forces steamrolled their efforts.
Syrian state television broadcast live footage from Misraba hours after it was captured by the army on Saturday, showing dozens of civilians in a dark basement, surrounded by troops.
One elderly man broke down into tears as he relayed how his family had fled to Douma under fierce bombardment.
Eastern Ghouta is home to around 400,000 people, living under a five-year siege that has made food and medical aid exceedingly rare.
On Friday, an aid convoy by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United Nations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent delivered food to hunger-stricken residents.
It was the second convoy in one week, after deliveries on Monday were interrupted by heavy bombardment.
The UN refugee agency’s Syria representative, who entered Ghouta with Monday’s convoy, said the area was “on the verge of a major disaster.”
“I’ve never seen such scared faces in my life,” Sajjad Malik said Friday.
He described seeing a five-story building that had been reduced to rubble, with a powerful stench emanating from several bodies trapped underneath.
Two Islamist groups are the most prominent rebel factions in Ghouta, but jihadists from Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) — once linked to Al-Qaeda’s Syria branch — also have a presence.
On Friday, 13 HTS members and their relatives were bussed out of the enclave.
Rebels said they would be taken to HTS territory in the northern province of Idlib, in an arrangement struck following consultations with the UN and international players.
Such evacuation deals have been repeatedly agreed in Syria’s seven-year war, most notably in the second city of Aleppo in late 2016.
After a ferocious month-long government assault, thousands of rebel fighters and civilians were bussed out of the city’s east.
That paved the way for Syria’s government to announce the full recapture of Aleppo — the largest defeat to date for the fractured opposition movement.
Syria’s conflict erupted with protests against Assad but has since developed into a full-blown war drawing in world powers.
Russia has intervened on Assad’s behalf while Turkey has backed rebels against his regime.
Saturday, Ankara-backed rebels advanced against Kurdish militia in northwest Syria, coming to within two kilometers (just over one mile) of the flashpoint town of Afrin, the Observatory said.
Elsewhere in Syria, the White Helmets rescue force suffered its first female fatality on Saturday, after air strikes hit a rebel-held town in Idlib province.


Egypt court upholds corruption conviction of Mubarak, sons

Updated 57 min 1 sec ago
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Egypt court upholds corruption conviction of Mubarak, sons

  • Saturday’s ruling by the Court of Cessation dashed any hope that Gamal Mubarak could run for public office.
  • Mubarak’s two sons are currently on trial for insider trading.

CAIRO: Egypt's highest appeals court on Saturday rejected a motion by former president Hosni Mubarak and his two sons to overturn their conviction on corruption charges.
The ruling by the Court of Cessation, Egypt's final recourse for appeals in criminal cases, dashed any hope that Gamal, Mubarak's younger son and one-time heir apparent, could run for public office. A senior newspaper editor and confidant of Egypt's current president had recently suggested that banker-turned-politician Gamal may have been contemplating the move.
The Mubarak trio was sentenced to three years each for embezzling funds meant for maintenance of presidential palaces but which they spent on upgrading or building private residences. The sons were released in 2015 for time served, while their father was freed last year. They repaid the funds, a total of 125 million pounds (about $7 million).
Mubarak's sons are currently on trial for insider trading. They are free on bail after a judge on Thursday overturned a surprise Sept. 15 ruling to detain them. The case's next hearing is on Oct. 20.
The rejection of their appeal Saturday and Gamal Mubarak's subsequent ineligibility to run for office came in the wake of recent comments by the chief editor of state-run Al-Akhbar publications, Yasser Rizq, who suggested that frequent public appearances by the younger Mubarak could be a prelude to a future presidential run.
Rizq first warned Gamal Mubarak against harboring presidential ambitions in an article published in May. He repeated the warning in a television interview aired earlier this week.
"His real crime is insulting the dignity of the Egyptian people," Rizq said, alluding to Gamal's one-time intention to succeed his father. It violated the constitution and amounted to the toppling of republican rule, he explained. He said it was not improbable that he would strike a political deal with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood to secure the group's return to politics in exchange for its support in a presidential bid in 2022, when President Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi's second term ends.
Preventing Gamal from succeeding his father was among the main drivers of a 2011 uprising that ended Mubarak's 29-year rule, as well as the military's support for it. The years that followed saw Mubarak regime heavyweights tried on corruption or abuse of power charges. Most have since walked free, while second-string regime loyalists found their way back to public life under El-Sissi.