Thousands of Syrians flee key towns as two major battles rage

Thousands of civilians streamed out of their towns to escape battles at opposite ends of Syria on Saturday, where two different offensives have prompted an exodus in recent days.

Air strikes pounded a rebel pocket in eastern Ghouta near the capital Damascus, rescuers and a war monitor said, with a new wave of at least 10,000 people fleeing to army lines since the morning.

In the northern Afrin region, people fled other frontlines closing in on their homes as Turkish troops and allied rebels struck the main town, Syrian Kurdish forces and the monitor said.

More than 150,000 people have left the town in the last few days, a senior Kurdish official and the monitor said.

The two offensives, one backed by Russia and the other led by Turkey, have shown how Syrian factions and their foreign allies are aggressively reshaping the map after the defeat of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate last year.

Syria’s conflict marked seven years this week, having killed hundreds of thousands, and displaced at least 11 million more, including nearly 6 million who have fled abroad in one of the worst refugee crises of modern times.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said air strikes on the rebel pocket in eastern Ghouta killed 30 people gathering to leave for government territory on Saturday.

The UK-based war monitoring group said the strikes on Zamalka town also injured dozens. There was no immediate comment from Damascus, which says it only targets armed militants.

The Observatory said a new wave of 10,000 people had left the insurgent pocket for government territory in Ghouta, where the government launched a fierce assault a month ago.

The Turkish military denied on Saturday that it had struck a hospital in Afrin, where it has waged an offensive since January against the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia that controls the region.

The YPG and the Observatory said a Turkish air strike on Afrin town’s main hospital had killed 16 people the night before. (Courtesy Reuters)