As Syrian regime's Russian-backed assault on eastern Ghouta enters fourth week, key figures in an opposition-held town evacuation offer. But opposition groups in enclave vow they will fight on.
Syrian regime forces and opposition groups fought fierce battles early on Sunday on a critical front in eastern Ghouta where regime advances have in effect splintered the opposition enclave near Damascus into three.
State television on Sunday, broadcasting from the edge of the eastern Ghouta town of Mudeira, where a regime field commander confirmed to Reuters that more forces had arrived earlier in the day.
Meanwhile, a delegation from eastern Ghouta was on Sunday considering a partial evacuation deal to halt a fierce regime offensive, a negotiator and monitor told AFP.
The two main opposition groups in the region, which borders Damascus, have firmly and repeatedly denied negotiating with the Syrian regime.
But on Sunday, as the regime's Russian-backed assault entered its fourth week, influential figures in one opposition-held town were considering a possible evacuation offer.
After the regime advances split up the enclave, Jaish al Islam emerged as the strongest group in the town of Douma, Ahrar al Sham in the town of Harasta and Failaq al Rahman in the new southern pocket of eastern Ghouta.
Syrian state media also reported regime forces advance near Jisreen and Aftaris in the southeastern part of the opposition-held territory.
Discussion over proposed reconciliation
A committee from Hammuriyeh met with regime representatives on Saturday, a member of the committee told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"The committee discussed a proposed reconciliation that would guarantee exit for those that want to leave, both civilians and militants, from Hammuriyeh to other areas in Syria under opposition control," the delegate said.
Civilians and militants could be bussed to opposition-controlled parts of Daraa province in Syria's south, or to Idlib in the northwest, held by militants and a former Al Qaeda affiliate.
Regime forces would then take control of Hammuriyeh, and residents who wanted to stay on in the town would be allowed to do so.
"The committee is meeting on Sunday to take a decision and inform the regime. If they do not agree, there would be a resumption of the military operation on Ghouta, including Hammuriyeh," the negotiator added.
But opposition groups in eastern Ghouta have vowed they will fight on. A statement issued by Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions there late on Saturday said they had taken a decision not to accept a surrender and negotiated withdrawal.
#SOHR The factions of the Eastern #Ghouta resist fiercely to prevent the regime forces and the #Russians from reaching the Vehicle Department and the renewed shelling leaves more human losses https://t.co/6oGFyaP8a4— #المرصدالسوري #SOHR (@syriahr) March 11, 2018
Russian role in talks
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said negotiations for evacuations from multiple towns were ongoing on Sunday.
"A decision could be taken any moment for Hammuriyeh, Jisreen, and Saqba," said SOHR chief Rami Abdel Rahman.
All three towns are controlled by opposition group Faylaq al Rahman, which has repeated denied engaging in talks with the regime.
"There are no direct or indirect negotiations with the Russian enemy or its allies," said the group's spokesman Wael Alwan late on Saturday.
"No one has been authorised to negotiate on behalf of" opposition in eastern Ghouta, he added.
The second main opposition group in eastern Ghouta, Jaish al Islam, has also denied rumours it is negotiating its own withdrawal.
But it has admitted engaging in talks with the UN and world powers on Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), a group once linked to Al Qaeda.
Evacuation of militants, families
Those negotiations resulted last week in Jaish al Islam releasing 13 HTS members it was holding. The militants and their relatives were then evacuated to northwest Syria on Friday.
HTS, which has a small presence in parts of eastern Ghouta, has not commented publicly on the negotiations.
Russian news agency Interfax said Sunday that the Russian Centre for Reconciliation, based alongside Russia's air force at the Hmeymim military airport in western Syria, was facilitating negotiations with opposition in eastern Ghouta.
It did not specify which opposition factions were engaging in the talks.
"The militants are considering the possibility of evacuating several dozen residents in exchange for an opportunity to leave the area with their families," Major General Vladimir Zolotukhin of the Russian Centre for Reconciliation of Syria's Warring Parties told Interfax.
The Russian military says more than 50 civilians have evacuated from besieged eastern Ghouta.
"Today, 52 civilians, including 26 children, were brought from eastern Ghouta," said Zolotukhin on Sunday.
The UN estimates there are 400,000 civilians trapped in the siege.
Russia and the Syrian regime have accused militants of blocking civilians from fleeing the violence.
Zolotukhin said Sunday that the evacuees will receive "all necessary assistance" within two days, according to Russian news agencies.
The bloody massacres continue in #EasternGhouta today, 3 civilians were killed in #Arbin city, and 3 others in #Zamalka city so far. Massive bombardment continues with more than 44 air strikes and— The White Helmets (@SyriaCivilDef) March 11, 2018
intensive artillery shelling. #SaveGhouta pic.twitter.com/sJiU02xygG
Concerns over civilian casualties
More than 1,100 civilians have been killed in the onslaught on the biggest opposition stronghold near Damascus since it began three weeks ago with a withering bombardment, said SOHR.
It said there was intense fighting on several fronts accompanied by the regime artillery barrage, continuous air raids and attacks by helicopters.
Footage showed several massive plumes of smoke in the distance behind a war-ravaged townscape with big holes in walls and roofs, and yet more smoke wafting across the streets. The sound of blasts could be heard.
The advance on Mudeira, after the capture of the neighbouring town of Mesraba on Saturday, has driven a wedge deep inside the opposition territory, leaving the major towns of Douma and Harasta all but cut off.
On Saturday, the regime forces found 60 civilians cowering in a basement in Mesraba. Activists in eastern Ghouta said thousands of people from Mesraba had already fled into Douma, further into the opposition territory, before the regime took it.
Syrian state television reported on Sunday that opposition mortar fire had killed four people after hitting a taxi. Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad has sworn to end opposition shelling of the capital.
UN calls for humanitarian ceasefire
The violence of the assault has prompted condemnation from Western countries and repeated calls by UN aid agencies for a humanitarian ceasefire.
Activists and militants in eastern Ghouta in recent days have said the bombardment has included incendiary material that causes fires and burn injuries. Local doctors have also reported several incidents of bomb attacks followed by the smell of chlorine and symptoms of choking.
The regime denies using either incendiary weapons or chemical weapons, and said on Saturday it had information that the militants were planning to stage a fake chemical attack to discredit the regime forces.
Accusations of opposition fire
In Muscat, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said it would be "very unwise" for Syrian regime forces to use weaponised gas, citing unconfirmed reports of chlorine attacks in eastern Ghouta.
Visiting Oman, Mattis stopped short of threatening to retaliate against regime forces if a chlorine attack were confirmed. But he noted America's cruise missile strike on April 6, 2017, on a Syrian air base over a sarin gas attack and said President Donald Trump had "full political manoeuvre room" to take whatever decision he believed was appropriate.
Damascus and Moscow accuse opposition of firing on anybody who tries to leave, something the militants deny though a Reuters witness said there was shelling and gunfire near one exit route on Friday.
Defeat in eastern Ghouta would deliver the opposition their biggest blow since December 2016, when the regime offensive drove them from Aleppo, their largest urban stronghold.