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Civilian death toll tops 1000 in assault on Syria's Eastern Ghouta

Civilian death toll tops 1000 in assault on Syria's Eastern Ghouta

Besieged by government forces since 2013, Ghouta is the last remaining rebel-held area near the capital.

Jaish al-Islam and Failaq al-Rahman, another large rebel group in Eastern Ghouta, said they have staged counter-attacks in recent days that retook some lost positions.

Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government forces have also cut off the main highway that links northern Ghouta with its southern parts, isolating the town of Douma, the largest in the area.

An aid convoy crossed into the embattled rebel-held suburbs of Damascus Friday, delivering desperately needed aid despite heavy fighting that broke out "extremely close" to the convoy and renewed airstrikes by the Syrian government.

Almost 950 civilians have been killed since Russia-backed government forces launched a blistering assault on the last opposition bastion near Damascus on Feb 18.

It follows a pause in Syrian government air strikes overnight, with the situation in the besieged enclave on Friday described as "calm".

The presence of H.T.S. has been a chief justification cited by the Syrian government and its most powerful ally, Russia, for the scorched-earth bombing campaign they are carrying out in Eastern Ghouta.

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The ferocious three-week assault on the last major rebel stronghold near Damascus has captured about half its area and killed 960 people, according to the Observatory.

The evacuation deal came after Jaish al-Islam sent a letter last month to the United Nations vowing to facilitate the evacuation of the former al-Qaeda members.

The government says its forces now control half the enclave.

"Tense negotiations continue between representatives of the Center. leaders of the illegal armed formations of the Syrian opposition in order to reach an agreement on the withdrawal of the second line of militants from the zone of de-escalation of East Ghouta", he said, according to Russian news agencies.

Further north in Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said the Turkish army and its Free Syrian Army allies could enter the town of Afrin "at any moment" and are surrounding its centre.

Saturday, Ankara-backed rebels advanced against Kurdish militia in northwest Syria, coming to within two kilometres (just over one mile) of the flashpoint town of Afrin, the Observatory said. Russian military outposts in the country have also come under rebel attacks recently, including a massive drone raid earlier this year involving 13 aircraft equipped with satellite navigation.

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