40,000 flee Ghouta amid fierce bombardment; 76 killed

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ADRA: Air strikes killed dozens of civilians in Eastern Ghouta and forced thousands to flee their homes on Friday as Syrian and allied forces pressed their blistering assault on the six-year-old rebel stronghold.

At least 76 civilians were killed as the toll for the month-old assault near Damascus continued to mount and world powers remained unable to stop one of the seven-year conflict’s worst crises.

The war entered its eighth year with another deadly assault unfolding in the north, where Turkish-led forces pressed an operation to seize the Kurdish-majority region of Afrin, sending thousands more civilians on to the roads.

Turkish artillery fire killed 27 civilians on Friday in the city of Afrin, where remaining residents were stocking up on food in preparation for a fully-fledged siege.

On the edge of Ghouta, a sprawling semi-rural area within mortar range of central Damascus, hundreds of civilians were still streaming out of destroyed towns, carrying scant belongings in bags and bundles.

Exhausted and distraught, the estimated 40,000 people who poured out of Ghouta on Thursday had harrowing tales of life in fear and deprivation, trapped for weeks in their cellars as regime and Russian jets rained bombs.

“We were around 66 families in the basement, with seven people per family,” Hussein Samid said, pausing on the roadside to smoke a cigarette.

“Those of us who were in the cellar got together and decided to leave, whatever the cost,” the 40-year-old said.

Hundreds of them were crammed in a centre on the edge of Eastern Ghouta on Friday, unsure what the next step would be after walking straight into the arms of the forces that have relentlessly pounded their homes for weeks.

They were sitting on the ground and had little access to sanitation as the sudden exodus appeared to have caught the government flat-footed.

Despite mild temperatures, most of them were wearing several layers of heavy winter clothes, the same they had kept on for weeks in their freezing basements.

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