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Civilian death toll in Ghouta soars as US demands Syria halt bombardment

A Syrian man carries two children in the rubble of buildings following regime air strikes on the rebel-held besieged town of Douma in the eastern Ghouta region, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 7, 2018
Hamza Al-Ajweh (AFP)
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said air strikes on Thursday alone killed 58 civilians

The United States called on Syria and Russia to end their bombardment of a rebel-held enclave on Thursday as a monitor said that four days of ferocious air strikes have killed more than 200 civilians.

Syrian government troops have waged an intense air campaign on Eastern Ghouta since Monday that has left at least 207 civilians dead in total, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The war monitor said bombardment on Thursday alone killed 58 civilians including more than a dozen children.

Warplanes pounded the besieged territory just east of the capital for the fourth consecutive day, striking at least six different locations.

Eastern Ghouta and Idlib, a northern province where violence also flared this week, are both so-called de-escalation zones agreed last year in a bid to pave the way for an end to the conflict.

Amer ALMOHIBANY (AFP)

In a statement from the State Department, Washington threw its weight behind a UN call for a new ceasefire in Ghouta and demanded that Russia rein in its ally, Bashar Al-Assad.

"These attacks must end now," spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

Syrian government warplanes have ratcheted up their bombardment of Eastern Ghouta this week, leaving dozens dead and hundreds in need of medical care.

Regime bombing raids left 38 civilians dead on Wednesday, the Observatory said in a new toll.

It came on the heels of the bloodiest day in months for Eastern Ghouta on Tuesday, when 80 civilians were killed in strikes.

Double-tap strike

Jisreen was also hit heavily, with 17 civilians killed on Thursday.

An AFP correspondent there said the strikes hit near a school, a market and a mosque, leaving vegetable stalls overturned and damaged.

Rescue teams rushed to Jisreen and pulled three children and a woman out of the rubble.

Moayad al-Hafi, a rescue worker, said his team was hit in a double-tap strike as they were pulling bodies out in Jisreen, which is near Erbin.

"As we were pulling out the children and the dead from under the rubble, they targeted us with five rockets -- directly targeting us," said Hafi, 24.

Hamza Al-Ajweh (AFP)

Eastern Ghouta, which lies just east of the capital Damascus, is controlled by rebel factions including Islamists.

An estimated 400,000 people live under a suffocating government-imposed siege, which has made food and medicine nearly impossible to access.

In apparent retaliation, one person was killed and five people wounded in rebel mortar fire on the regime-controlled part of the town of Harasta, according to state news agency SANA.

US strike a 'war crime'

Washington's interjection came as the Syrian government called a US-led air strike on pro-Assad fighters earlier on Thursday a "war crime."

The US-led coalition said it carried out air strikes against pro-government fighters to defend its allies in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor.

In a letter addressed to the United Nations Secretary General, the Syrian foreign ministry said the attack "represents a war crime and a crime against humanity".

It accused the United States of using "the excuse of fighting terrorism to set up illegitimate bases on Syrian territory".

"The Syrian government renews its call to dissolve this illegitimate coalition," it said.

George OURFALIAN (AFP/File)

The United States said Syrian pro-government forces initiated an attack on the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

The SDF and the coalition targeted the attacking forces with air strikes and shelling after "20 to 30 artillery and tank rounds landed within 500 metres (yards) of the SDF headquarters location", a US official said.

More than 100 pro-regime fighters were killed, the official added.

Meanwhile, the UN Security Council failed to back an appeal from UN aid officials for a month-long humanitarian ceasefire in Syria.

Russia dismissed the proposal as unrealistic but Kuwait and Sweden, which requested the meeting, said they were considering other ways to address the worsening humanitarian crisis.

Asked about the one-month pause, Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said, "That is not realistic."

"We would like to see a ceasefire, the end of the war, but the terrorists, I am not sure, are in agreement," he told reporters.

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