Middle East

Syria monitors: IS militants seize Damascus neighborhood

The Syrian government sent reinforcements to a southern neighborhood in Damascus on Tuesday after losing it to Islamic State militants after days of fighting that killed dozens of soldiers and pro-government militiamen, a monitoring group said.

IS militants late on Monday captured Damascus’ Qadam neighborhood, which had been largely left vacant as the government’s month-long campaign to retake the city’s eastern Ghouta suburbs from the rebels had drawn significant firepower and resources to that front.

At least 36 soldiers and pro-government militiamen were killed in clashes over Qadam, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which also reported the government reinforcements.

In eastern Ghouta, rescue workers were still retrieving bodies on Tuesday from the basement of a school that was bombed by government or Russian jets on Monday, a spokesman for the Syrian Civil Defense group said.

The bodies of 20 women and children have been retrieved from the rubble, said the group, also known as the White Helmets. The school, in Arbin, a town in eastern Ghouta, was being used as a shelter by residents, said the Observatory.

Oways al-Shami said continued bombing was slowing down rescue operations.

“They’re not able to use their heavy vehicles because the planes are targeting the Civil Defense directly,” said al-Shami, a spokesman for the group, said of the rescuers.

The New York-based Physicians for Human Rights monitoring group has documented numerous government and Russian attacks on hospitals and paramedical services throughout Syria’s seven-year civil war.

Residents in another Ghouta town, Douma, also reported indiscriminate shelling and airstrikes.

“I haven’t been able to go out to look for food since yesterday,” said Ahmad Khansour, a media activist who spoke to The Associated Press from a basement in the town. He reported 175 strikes on the town since Monday evening.

The government offensive on eastern Ghouta has driven 45,000 residents from their homes, according to the latest figures from the U.N.’s refugee agency.

Spokesman Andrej Mahecic told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday that UNHCR is not involved in the evacuation into government-controlled areas near Damascus, though its teams have been at “makeshift collective shelters.”

He said thousands of people were “still trapped by fierce fighting and in dire need of aid,” and a shortage of shelters was “a major concern.”

With Qadam, the IS group has expanded its footprint in the southern corners of the Syrian capital, after holding the nearby Hajr al-Aswad neighborhood and Yarmouk Palestinian camp for years.

The militants circulated a statement on Twitter saying they took Qadam.

Qadam was held by rebels until they surrendered the neighborhood to the government one week ago following a protracted siege. More than 1,000 rebels and their families elected to leave the neighborhood for rebel-held territory in the north of the country, instead of submitting to the government.

The Observatory said that along with the 36 troops killed, dozens more were wounded or captured in the clashes with IS militants in Qadam. The Islamic State group last year lost the contiguous stretch of territory it controlled in eastern Syria since 2014 — and where it had proclaimed its self-styled “caliphate” — but pockets and smaller areas of control remain scattered across Syria.

There was no immediate comment from the government.

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