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Syria bombardment kills 80 in rebel enclave; ground assault looms

HAMMURIYEH: Heavy Syrian bombardment killed almost 80 people in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta , as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. Over 300 people were injured.
The escalation came as pro-government forces were expected to enter the northern Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin, to take a stand against a month-old Turkish assault there.
Held by rebels since 2012, Eastern Ghouta is the last opposition pocket around Damascus and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has dispatched reinforcements there in an apparent bid to retake it.
A barrage of air strikes, rocket fire, and artillery slammed into several towns across Eastern Ghouta on Monday.
The Britain-based Syrian Observa­tory for Human Rights said 20 were killed in air strikes on Hammuriyeh and nine others in bombardment on Saqba.
The rest were killed when other areas were pounded.
“The regime is bombing Eastern Ghouta to pave the way for a ground offensive,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.
Residents of Hammuriyeh could be seen rushing inside in a panic as soon as they heard the sound of airplanes.
Alaa al-Din, a 23-year-old Syrian in Hammuriyeh, said civilians were afraid of a potential government offensive.
“Ghouta’s fate is unknown. We’ve got nothing but God’s mercy and hiding out in our basements,” he said. “There’s no alternative.”
Shelling also hit the town of Douma, where a correspondent saw five toddlers brought to a hospital, covered in dust and wailing uncontrollably.
Medics offered them biscuits to calm them down, to no avail.
Eastern Ghouta is held by two main Islamist factions, but jihadists control small pockets including one directly adjacent to the capital.
The Observatory and Syrian daily newspaper Al-Watan had said negotiations were under way for the evacuation of jihadists from Eastern Ghouta.
But escalating military pressure indicate that the regime would opt for a ground assault instead of talks, the monitor said.
Government troops carried out a relentless five-day bombing campaign earlier this month that killed around 250 civilians in the enclave and wounded hundreds.
Around the same time, the monitor said, the regime began dispatching military reinforcements to Eastern Ghouta.
After days of relative calm, the government sent more than 260 rockets sailing onto Eastern Ghouta on Sunday.
Those rockets, as well as artillery fire and air strikes, killed 17 civilians, said the Observatory.
The regime is keen to regain control of Eastern Ghouta to halt the deadly salvo of rockets and mortars that rebels fire on Damascus.
About half a dozen rockets hit the capital Sunday night, correspondents said. State news agency SANA reported that one person was killed.
More than 20 civilians have been killed by rebel fire this month alone in regime-held Damascus.