Rights group says 898 civilians killed in Syria in last 18 days

BEIRUT/AMMAN Syria's army is poised to slice rebel-held eastern Ghouta in two as forces advancing from the east link up with troops at its western edge, a pro-Damascus commander said yesterday, piling more pressure on the last major rebel enclave near the capital.

The government, backed in the war by Russia and Iran, is seeking to crush the enclave in a ferocious campaign that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says has killed more than 900 civilians in the last 18 days, including 91 on Wednesday.

Rebels, who accuse the government of "scorched earth" tactics, said they were deploying more guerrilla-style ambushes in lost territory, trying to stop further advances.

Defeat in eastern Ghouta would mark the worst setback for the rebels since the opposition was driven from eastern Aleppo in late 2016 after a similar campaign of siege, bombing and ground assaults.

The pro-Damascus commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media, confirmed a report by the Observatory late on Wednesday that the enclave had effectively been sliced in two.

But Istanbul-based spokesman Wael Alwan, representing one of the main rebel group Failaq Al Rahman, denied the territory had been cut in half.

"No" he said in a text message when asked if the report was correct.

An aid convoy's trip to Ghouta later yesterday was postponed, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations (UN) said.

The UN says 400,000 people are trapped in the towns and villages of eastern Ghouta. Many civilians have fled from the frontlines into Douma, a town in the enclave. - REUTERS