Syrian troops captured at least six villages and towns in the rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta, state media and activists reported Sunday — sending thousands of civilians fleeing the region that United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres described as “hell on earth.”
The forces under Syrian President Bashar Assad began their advance late Saturday in the region, the last major rebel stronghold near the capital, Demascus, Syria's Central Military Media said. A reporter from the state-run Al-Ikhbariyah TV said the Syrian troops seized about 4.6 square miles after crossing a “moat.”
Rebel forces responded Sunday by launching a counteroffensive. At least one town was recaptured by the rebel troops as intense shelling and fighting continued.
"It is a scorched-earth policy," Ghouta-based activist Nour Adam said. "People are moving out because of the relentless bombing."
Thousands of civilians took cover and fled government forces. Some hid in underground shelters, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated, according to Reuters.
Eastern Ghouta, where about 400,000 people live, has been the subject of daily bombardment by the government forces. More than 600 civilians have been killed in the last two weeks alone.
The United Nations Security Council demanded a 30-day nationwide ceasefire that initially failed to pass. The U.N. voted unanimously in favor of the ceasefire resolution on Feb. 24 after two days of negotiation. Russia called for daily, five-hour ceasefires to deliver aid and evacuate civilians in eastern Ghouta. However, no aid has been delivered, according to Reuters.
Guterres said civilians in the rebel-held enclave were living in “hell on earth.”
"This is a human tragedy that is unfolding in front of our eyes and I don't think we can let things go on happening in this horrendous way," Guterres previously said.
Meanwhile, no civilians have exited through a humanitarian corridor set up by Russia and the Syrian government nearly a week ago.
Russia has accused the rebels of preventing civilians from leaving, allegations denied by the insurgents. The rebels say the humanitarian corridor is part of government efforts to forcibly displace the population, and have called on government forces to implement a full ceasefire adopted by the U.N. Security Council.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.