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Syrian army forces in key East Ghouta town in major blow to militants

This photo released on March 7, 2018 by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows Syrian government soldiers advancing during a battle against militants in Eastern Ghouta.

Syrian armed forces have entered a strategic town in Eastern Ghouta as they press ahead with their push to liberate the suburban area near the capital, Damascus, from years of devastating militant control.

The so-called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Wednesday that army soldiers managed overnight to make their way into the town of Hamouriyah, located 12 kilometers from Damascus city center, which is under the control of the Faylaq al-Rahman militant group.

They regained control of parts of Hamouriyah in the south of the embattled enclave, which is one of the last major militant stronghold in Syria.

Eastern Ghouta fell to the militants in 2012, months after Syria plunged into crisis, and has since served as a launch pad for fatal mortar attacks against the residents and infrastructure of the Syrian capital.

The region is currently controlled by a myriad of militant groups, many of them no less brutal than the world’s most notorious terror group, Daesh.

In mid-February, the Syrian army, backed by Russia’s air forces, launched a new operation against the militants holed up in Eastern Ghouta.

In a turning point, Syrian forces split the region last week into three sections each controlled by different militant groups, most notably the Takfiri al-Nusra Front and Jaish al-Islam terror outfits.

The army campaign draws on the experience of the Aleppo liberation offensive in late 2016, which set the stage for the launch of a peace process involving Syrian warring sides with the help of Iran, Russia and Turkey.

Back then, Syrian government forces divided the then militant-held pocket of the city into two halves, in a victory that signaled the beginning of the end for its occupation in December that year.

Eastern Ghouta’s recapture would mark the most significant blow to the militants operating against the government as they would no longer be able to pose threats to the capital city.

Parallel to the military push, Syria and Russia have set up humanitarian corridors for civilians to escape the operations zone to government-controlled territory.

A picture released by SANA on March 14, 2018 shows Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers escorting evacuated civilians from Eastern Ghouta following their arrival at the government side of the Wafideen checkpoint on the outskirts of Damascus.

However, the militants, floundering in the face of government advances, have been blocking the exit of civilians to use them as human shields.

Earlier this week, people in Hamouriyah staged a protest against being held hostage there. The militants, however, opened fire on the gathering and killed nine civilians, according to the Russian military.

Syria told the UN Security Council on Tuesday that Eastern Ghouta has been used over the past week to launch more than 2499 mortar and rocket shells on Damascus, killing 70 civilians.

Aid convoy in Ghouta amid pause in fighting

On Thursday morning, the Russian Defense Ministry extended a humanitarian pause in fighting in the region for two days to help more civilians reach safety.

The Russian military said the pause on Thursday and Friday focuses on humanitarian operations in the town of Douma.

Over 130 people have so far left the area through the safe route, it added

Syria’s official SANA news agency also reported that army forces secured the exit of a new batch of civilians from Eastern Ghouta to the al-Wafedeen Camp set up by the government for the displaced families.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said a joint convoy of 25 trucks carrying food supplies has entered Eastern Ghouta and is on its way to Douma, the largest and most populated town in the area.

The convoy is organized with the United Nations and the Syria Red Crescent Society.

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