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Airstrikes kill 17 civilians in Syrian rebel-held area, rescuers say

Syrian civilians inspect the damage following reported bombardment by Syrian and Russian forces in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the Eastern Ghouta, on January 6, 2018. Regime and Russian air strikes on a rebel-held enclave near the Syrian capital killed at least 17 civilians, a war monitor said. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA

At least 17 civilians in the Syrian enclave of Eastern Ghouta have been killed in a day of airstrikes, a rescue group and war monitor has said, as the government intensifies its aerial raids against the country’s last remaining rebel-held areas.

The White Helmets volunteer rescue group reported dozens of airstrikes in the area on Saturday, adding that four children were among the dead and 40 more were injured. It said government airstrikes, backed by Russian air power, had continued for nine days.

A resident in Eastern Ghouta told CNN that airstrikes and shelling were continuing Sunday, adding that he heard four air bombings in the space of 10 hours.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitor of the conflict, also reported the death toll of 17, adding that Syrian and Russian aircraft had targeted several residential areas. The monitor said that a coalition of rebels and jihadists had surrounded the only Syrian-regime base in the enclave several days ago.

Eastern Ghouta, which sits on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, Damascus, was designated a deescalation zone in an agreement in May, brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran, which are holding talks to resolve Syria’s near-seven-year conflict. But violence between rebels and regime forces erupted several weeks ago, and airstrikes have since resumed there.

The fighting is in violation of a truce first proposed by Russia and then accepted by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in November.

The area was seized by rebel groups after the Syrian civil war erupted with the Arab Spring, but it has been besieged by government forces since 2013.

The regime’s chokehold on the enclave has led to a desperate humanitarian situation there, with the government repeatedly refusing aid into the area or to allow civilians to easily leave.

In late December, however, the government allowed more than 80 people to leave Eastern Ghouta to be taken to hospitals in Damascus for medical treatment, in a one-off people swap deal, in which prisoners were swapped for critically ill civilians.

A critically ill 6-month old baby died while waiting to be evacuated, according to Mohamad Katoub, advocacy manager for the Syrian American Medical Society.