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Scores of airstrikes hit south Damascus amid major pro-government offensive

AMMAN: Pro-government warplanes struck besieged, Islamic State-held neighborhoods in southern […]

AMMAN: Pro-government warplanes struck besieged, Islamic State-held neighborhoods in southern Damascus on Sunday as residents took refuge from the massive aerial onslaught in underground shelters, local sources told Syria Direct.

An estimated 70 airstrikes and 30 barrel bombs struck Islamic State (IS)-controlled sections of south Damascus on Sunday, Ammar al-Qudsi, an activist in an opposition-held town neighboring the IS-held districts told Syria Direct. Other local activists provided similar estimates.

“The planes aren’t leaving the sky,” al-Qudsi said. “The bombing has not stopped.”

Syrian state news agency SANA reported that warplanes launched “precision strikes” on IS-held al-Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood in southern Damascus on Sunday morning. The agency also reported that Syrian Arab Army (SAA) soldiers advanced against IS fighters in the area, but did not provide further details.

Smoke rises after an airstrike in south Damascus on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Fadi Shubat.

Syrian government forces first encircled south Damascus—a collection of towns, villages and a large Palestinian refugee camp—in mid-2013. Control of the besieged area is split between IS, a handful of FSA-affiliated factions and a small number of Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) fighters.

The latest pro-government campaign in south Damascus began on Thursday evening with airstrikes against the IS-controlled, western districts of the besieged pocket, local activists reported. Ground forces comprised of SAA soldiers and pro-government  militias then launched a simultaneous attack on IS positions on the perimeter of the besieged pocket.

Activists in south Damascus recorded as many as 400 airstrikes and 100 barrel bombs on IS-held neighborhoods of southern Damascus since Thursday, Fadi Shubat, the director of the pro-opposition media outlet Damascus Press told Syria Direct.

Inside IS-held territory are “hundreds of families who can’t leave the bomb shelters,” Muhammad Hamada, a recently departed resident of the IS-held Yarmouk camp in southern Damascus, told Syria Direct via Facebook call on Sunday.

Hamada fled Yarmouk camp to the nearby Free Syrian Army (FSA)-held town of Yalda on Thursday, while the rest of his family followed on Sunday morning. A series of explosions could be heard in the background as Hamada spoke with a Syria Direct reporter on Sunday.

The United Nations (UN) is “deeply concerned for the safety and protection of tens of thousands of civilians” in southern Damascus, Linda Tom, spokeswoman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), told Syria Direct via WhatsApp on Sunday.“Recent air and ground strikes have reportedly resulted in civilian deaths and injuries, as well as displacement,” she added.

The UN estimates that 6,000 civilians resided in Yarmouk camp before the most recent hostilities began, said Tom. No humanitarian aid has entered the besieged southern neighborhoods of Damascus since September 2017.

Smoke following clashes between the Islamic State and pro-government forces on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Damascus Now.

Pro-government bombardment and shelling killed at least 12 civilians in south Damascus since Thursday afternoon, activist al-Qudsi told Syria Direct from Yalda on Sunday. Al-Qudsi is originally from Yarmouk camp but recently left for FSA-held territory.

“We expect the toll to be higher,” al-Qudsi said, adding that ongoing airstrikes and a tight IS crackdown on journalists and activists has made communication with those in Yarmouk camp and al-Hajar al-Aswad difficult.

Activists in the FSA-held towns immediately east of Yarmouk camp took to rooftops perched high above the city in recent days to monitor the aerial assault and count airstrikes.

“We’re seeing neighborhoods, containing both memories of childhood and our relatives, destroyed in front of our eyes,” 24-year-old activist Muatez a-Salhi told Syria Direct from Yalda on Sunday. “The bombing hasn’t stopped since Thursday.”

A-Salhi lived in Yarmouk until one month ago, when he fled the area, fearing arrest by IS fighters. IS is hostile to journalists and activists and recently carried out an arrest campaign targeting them in the camp, he said.

Hostilities broke out between IS forces in south Damascus and pro-government forces last Tuesday after talks between IS and state negotiators stalled last week. The Syrian army and militias loyal to the Assad government built up their forces on the edges of the capital’s IS-held districts as pro-government media outlets spoke of a coming battle, Syria Direct reported at the time.

Recapturing south Damascus would put the Bashar al-Assad government in full control of the Syrian capital for the first time since the war began.

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