Beginning of the end for Ghouta rebels: Thousands flee relentless regime assault

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This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows civilians carrying their belongings as they flee from fighting between Syrian government forces and insurgents through the Wafideen crossing in eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, Syria, on March 22, 2018. (SANA via AP)
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Rebel fighters gather and pray before they leave, at the city limits of Harasta, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria, on March 22, 2018. (REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki)
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A Syrian child looks out the window of a vehicle during a civilian evacuation by the Syrian Red Crescent in the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta enclave on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on March 22, 2018, on their way to the government controlled Wafidin crossing. (AFP / HAMZA AL-AJWEH)
Updated 23 March 2018
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Beginning of the end for Ghouta rebels: Thousands flee relentless regime assault

JEDDAH: Hundreds of Syrian opposition fighters and their relatives began evacuating a key besieged town in Eastern Ghouta on Thursday.
Their departure was the first rebel surrender from the region east of Damascus where more than 1,500 people have been killed in one of the most ferocious regime onslaughts of the Syrian conflict.
Syrian TV broadcast footage showing dozens of white buses, with opposition fighters and civilians on board, driving out of the Harasta. Among the 1,580 evacuees were 413 gunmen, reports said. More are expected to leave in the coming days.
Yahya Al-Aridi, spokesman for the Syrian opposition, told Arab News he did not see it as a “surrender” because of the overwhelming firepower used by the government military and the “superpower” supporting them — Russia. Iran also backs President Bashar Assad with dozens of heavily armed militias.
The devastation wrought on Eastern Ghouta shows that the world appears to have lost its conscience, Al-Aridi said. “The (UN) Security Council is being hijacked by Russia. The power of Iran has no deterrence. We hear words, we hear statements, we hear claims, we hear screams and cries from the West, but nothing happens,” he said.
The departure from Harasta of opposition fighters from the Ahrar Al-Sham group could serve as a blueprint for other militants in other towns, bringing Assad’s regime closer to recapturing the entire territory following years of siege.
The regime assault has sparked a tide of displacement in the Damascus suburbs as civilians try to escape the violence. Some have moved deeper into the opposition-held enclave, while some 50,000 others have crossed the front-lines, to regime-controlled areas.
They included dozens of civilians who appeared to be wounded, some hobbling on crutches, another with an eye injury.
Regime airstrikes pummelled parts of Eastern Ghouta in the morning, striking Arbin and Zamalka and killing 19 people, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Later, opposition fighters fired rockets from Eastern Ghouta into Damascus, killing two people, state media reported.
Between 18,000 and 20,000 people were expected to stay in Harasta under government rule, a military source told Reuters.
The air and ground attack, which escalated on Feb. 18, has seen the once sprawling territory at the doors of the capital shrink to three disconnected opposition-held islands.
The international medical charity Doctors Without Borders said the advancing regime forces had captured or destroyed 19 of the 20 hospitals the group was supporting just one week ago. It said medical staff were fleeing the approaching front lines.
The opposition holds just 20 percent of the Eastern Ghouta territory they held one month ago, according to the Syrian Observatory. But that territory includes several densely populated residential zones including Douma, the largest town in Eastern Ghouta.
Al-Aridi said the rebels had been “defending their lands, their families and their honor, while Russia, along with 80 Iranian militias and the remnants of the Assad regime, is targeting people who are trying to protect themselves.
“We try to save as many Syrians as possible because no one else cares about Syrians. This has been going on for seven continuous horrible years.”


Gaza field hospitals prepare for another day of bloodshed

Updated 45 min 22 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.