Syria war: Troops mass around last rebel town in Eastern Ghouta

Syrian children look down from a destroyed building following air strikes on the rebel-held town of Douma, in the Eastern Ghouta (25 March 2018)Image copyright

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The UN says up to 80,000 civilians are still believed to be trapped in Douma

Syrian government forces have massed around the last rebel-held town in the Eastern Ghouta area, after rebels were reportedly given a deadline to leave.

A newspaper said troops were preparing for a “huge” operation in Douma, which is controlled by Jaysh al-Islam.

The government’s ally Russia is said to have told the group late on Monday it had 48 hours to agree to be evacuated to Idlib province like other factions.

But Jaysh al-Islam has said its fighters want to disarm and stay.

The UN is concerned about the fate of the estimated 70,000 civilians trapped in Douma, where fighting has continued despite the negotiations with Russia.

More than 1,700 people are reported to have been killed and thousands injured since the government and its allies launched an offensive in mid-February to retake the Eastern Ghouta, which was the last major rebel stronghold near Damascus.

The UN says 80,000 civilians have fled on foot to government-held territory on the edge of the capital, as troops made dramatic advances in recent weeks and split the region into three pockets – the largest of which was around Douma.

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Media captionThousands of rebels and civilians are being bussed out of the Eastern Ghouta

Almost 20,000 rebels and civilians have also been evacuated to Idlib under deals between the government and the rebel factions Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Rahman, which controlled the pockets around the towns of Harasta and Arbin.

The displaced civilians have endured months of bombardment and limited access to food, medical care and other essential items. A senior UN official who met some of them in Damascus said they were “tired, hungry, traumatised and afraid”.

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