Forces loyal to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, have captured six villages and towns bordering the besieged rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta, as hopes that a long-planned humanitarian convoy might enter the area were dashed again.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitor, confirmed the latest advances, saying pro-regime government forces had seized about a quarter of the enclave on the outskirts of Damascus in recent days.
“Most of it is farms and there are few towns in [the captured area],” said the Observatory’s director, Rami Abdulrahman.
The latest fighting took place as UN aid officials said they had not been given permission from Syrian officials to send 40 trucks carrying supplies to the town of Douma, despite optimism earlier in the week that the convoy would be allowed to enter.
Condemning the lack of access, the UN’s regional humanitarian coordinator, Panos Moumtzis, said on Sunday: “One week after the UN security council voted in favour of resolution 2401, calling for a one-month cessation of hostilities across the war-ravaged country, not only has this not happened, in some cases the violence has escalated, particularly for the close to 400,000 men, women and children of [eastern] Ghouta.
“Instead of a much-needed reprieve, we continue to see more fighting, more death, and more disturbing reports of hunger and hospitals being bombed. This collective punishment of civilians is simply unacceptable.”
Some of the heaviest fighting on Sunday was concentrated in the area of Beit Sawa on the eastern edge of the densely populated centre of eastern Ghouta, where civilians fled clashes between government forces and Jaysh al-Islam, one of three main rebel groups.
Thousands in the encircled area have been sheltering in freezing basements and underground shelters in an attempt to escape from the daily bombardment.
Neemat Mohsen, who heads the local women’s office in Saqba, another town in eastern Ghouta, told the Associated Press that350 or more people lived in some shelters with no running water and no electricity.
“In our street, over 500 metres there are only three basements. They have to house all the families there. We feel the prison shrinking. We were first besieged in an enormous prison called eastern Ghouta, now we are trapped in shelters similar to tombs,” Mohsen said. “We are living real terror 24 hours a day.”
The reports of conditions inside the enclave came as Assad vowed that the assault would continue despite civilian casualties.
“The majority (of people) in eastern Ghouta want to escape the embrace of terrorism. The operation must continue,” Assad told journalists in remarks broadcast on state television.
Encircled by regime-controlled territory and unable or unwilling to flee, residents have been subjected to one of the most ferocious assaults of Syria’s civil war in recent weeks, including airstrikes and rocket and artillery bombardment.
The violence comes on top of critical shortages of food and medicines and a catastrophic collapse of medical care as hospitals and first responders have been targeted.
However, despite mounting international pressure on Syria and its backer Russia to allow access for aid and the evacuation of the wounded and civilians, a promised daily five-hour humanitarian pause has failed to materialise as forces loyal to Assad continued to press their assault.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the UN secretary general, António Guterres, expressed “grave concern” about the humanitarian situation in the area in a telephone conversation late on Saturday.
“The UN convoys must immediately deliver medical assistance and food aid to the besieged population,” the French president said.