BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian airstrikes on a Damascus suburb Saturday killed more than 20 people and wounded dozens in the latest wave of government attacks on the crowded rebel-held area, activists said.
Pesident Bashar Assad’s forces have been pounding Douma from the skies for over a week. The sprawling suburb is home to the Jaysh al-Islam rebel group, also known as Islam Army, which has claimed responsibility in the past for firing rockets on Damascus, seat of Assad’s presidency.
More than 100 people were killed in Douma last Sunday when airstrikes struck a vegetable market and other residential areas during rush hour, marking one of the deadliest such raids of the four-year civil war.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 20 people were killed in the airstrikes Saturday. It said the death toll was expected to rise because many of the wounded were in critical condition. Other groups including the Local Coordination Committees and the Douma Revolution Facebook page put the death toll at 50. Such discrepancies are common in the aftermath of chaotic strikes in Syria.
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U.N. officials have condemned the strikes, calling the government’s disregard for civilian life appalling. It was not immediately clear how many civilians were among those killed in Saturday’s airstrikes.
Activists have warned of a catastrophic humanitarian situation in Douma, part of the rebel-held suburbs east of Damascus known as Eastern Ghouta. The besieged region is where a deadly chemical weapons attack, blamed on Assad’s forces, occurred exactly two years ago.
Assad blames rebels for that attack. His government has also denied government “massacres” in Douma, saying reports are fabricated.
Douma has been held by rebels since the early days of Syria’s conflict, which began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests but escalated into a full-scale civil war after a massive government crackdown. The conflict has claimed more than 250,000 lives and displaced up to a third of Syria’s pre-war population.
Diplomatic efforts to end Syria’s war have gained urgency in recent weeks, particularly in the aftermath of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers. Iran is a strong backer of Assad’s government. Assad has suffered huge territorial losses in recent months but continues to maintain a firm grip on core areas crucial for his survival in Damascus, Homs and the coast.
Meanwhile, Syria’s main opposition group said Saturday it has serious reservations about a U.N. envoy’s plan setting the stage for new peace talks to end the civil war.
The Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition said Staffan de Mistura’s plan lacks the mechanism for a political transition without Assad and allows him time to maneuver politically and consolidate gains on the ground.
In a statement after meetings with de Mistura on Saturday, the group said his answers “fell short of dispelling our concerns.”
The U.N. Security Council last week endorsed de Mistura’s plan for new peace talks to end the conflict. It includes talks on a political transition leading to democratic elections and how best to fight terrorism. However, the future of Assad remains a sticking point.