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Syrian Forces Capture More Ground in Eastern Ghouta

Syrian government soldiers flash the victory sign as they advance in their battle against Syrian rebels, in eastern Ghouta, Syria, in this photo released March 7, 2018, by the Syrian official news agency SANA.

Syrian government forces have captured more ground in eastern Ghouta, a Damascus suburb controlled by rebel forces.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Saturday that government forces captured the town of Mesraba, 10 kilometers east of Damascus. The report was disputed, but if true, such a development would divide Ghouta into three isolated parts, weakening the rebels’ hold on the area.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has maintained a near-relentless assault on eastern Ghouta in recent weeks in an effort to pressure rebels to give up their guns and leave in what it terms “evacuation deals.”

On Friday, Syrian state TV showed video of 13 bearded men it said were the first rebel fighters to hand over their weapons and leave the area voluntarily. The video showed the men boarding a bus that also held Russian troops. Russia, which is supporting Assad, has offered safe passage for the opposition fighters in Ghouta who surrender to the government.

On Friday, aid workers were forced to wait for a pause in the heavy fighting to deliver a convoy of humanitarian aid to civilians trapped in the area.

“Aid workers should not have to risk their lives to deliver assistance,” said Robert Mardini, regional director of the International Committee of the Red Cross in the Middle East.

Mardini said Friday that his group had been taken aback by the fighting because humanitarian groups had guarantees from the parties involved in this conflict that humanitarian aid convoys would be allowed to enter the towns of eastern Ghouta. The ICRC eventually managed to deliver food and other supplies for 12,000 people.

Mardini said it was critical that such guarantees be kept because much more aid was needed in the area.

The Syrian Observatory also reported that civilian deaths in eastern Ghouta now totaled more than 1,000 since the government offensive started nearly three weeks ago. The total went up to 1,002 civilians after eight people were killed Saturday in the towns of Harasta and Arbin.