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.


Palestinian journalist wins appeal over Gaza graft report

Updated 25 March 2019
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Palestinian journalist wins appeal over Gaza graft report

  • The appeals court in Gaza “acquitted journalist Hajar Harb of all charges and closed her file”

GAZA CITY: A Palestinian journalist was acquitted on appeal over an investigative report about corruption in the Gaza Strip Monday, according to Amnesty International and a campaign group.

In a 2016 report for Al-Araby TV, Hajar Harb alleged that doctors were writing false medical reports to let people leave Gaza for treatment, one of the few reasons Israel allows Palestinians out of the blockaded strip run by Hamas.

In October that year, two doctors launched legal proceedings accusing her of defamation and “publishing false information,” according to Amnesty International.

The 34-year-old had been sentenced to six months in prison and fined, but the appeals court overruled the decision, said Fathi Sabah, head of a group supporting Harb.

The appeals court in Gaza “acquitted journalist Hajjar Harb of all charges and closed her file,” he said.

“This represents not just a victory for Hajjar but for freedom of the press,” he added.

Amnesty said Harb had been questioned by police at least four times following her report, but welcomed the decision of the court.

“It is really good news that Hajjar Harb was acquitted today, she was standing a trial that should not have taken place to begin with,” said Saleh Higazi, Amnesty’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“We hope that the Gaza authorities take this opportunity to signal that they are serious about freedom of expression and the press.”

In 2018, the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms recorded 77 violations of press freedom in the Palestinian Authority-run West Bank and 37 such cases in Gaza.

Hamas have controlled Gaza for more than a decade and have recently cracked down violently on street protests.