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Thousands displaced, aid delivery halted as violence consumes Syrian enclave

Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

BEIRUT -- In a thunderous assault, the Syrian army all but sliced the rebel-held enclave of Ghouta in two Thursday, pushing the death toll to more than 900 since the onslaught began last month and stalling the delivery of food and desperately needed medical supplies.

The fighting created a chaotic and uncertain situation on the ground as world leaders raised concerns regarding the safety of the some 400,000 trapped in the battered territory, just miles from the Syrian capital of Damascus. To many, the fighting was reminiscent of the fierce and final siege in Aleppo when government troops and a Russian-backed airstrike drove rebels from the Syrian city.

Overnight, pro-opposition activists and medical charities reported a devastating uptick in the government's onslaught, including unconfirmed reports that chlorine has been used in a chemical weapons attack, an assertion the government denied.

"It was absolutely hysterical. Phosphorous, cluster bombs, napalm, machine guns ... planes combed the Ghouta all night," said Hamza Hassan, a 35-year-old doctor with the Syrian American Medical Society, a group that supports and administers health centers in opposition areas.

"Nothing can stop this," Hassan said via the WhatsApp messaging platform. "This isn't war, this is burning an area down that has almost 400,000 people."

On Wednesday, 91 people were killed in Ghouta, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a rebel-aligned monitor based in Great Britain that relies on activists in the country. Additional attacks on Thursday raised the death toll to 915 since the beginning of the government's campaign Feb. 18.

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Hassan and others claimed that chemical weapons were deployed in Wednesday's barrage. Hassan described the attack on Hammouriyah and Saqba -- adjacent towns some four miles east of Damascus's Old Quarter -- as the "harshest chlorine attack I ever saw."

"You could smell it all over Hammouriyeh. Fifteen of them were children; water sprays, cortisone, we spared nothing to treat them," he said.

The Observatory also reported 60 people suffered breathing difficulties after Syrian and Russian airstrikes targeted Saqba and Hammouriyeh on Wednesday.

Damascus has long been accused of using chemical weapons, including a Sarin gas attack on the Ghouta in 2013 estimated to have killed anywhere from 281 to more than a thousand people. The government has repeatedly denied the charge, dismissing it again Thursday as "a charade."


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