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Syrian regime jets pounded Eastern Ghouta on Thursday, sending the death toll for the four-day assault on the rebel enclave on the outskirts of Damascus soaring past 200.
Violence also flared in eastern Syria, where the US-led coalition said it killed at least 100 pro-regime fighters to fend off an attack on its Kurdish allies.
The clash marked a fresh escalation between Washington, which has threatened the regime over its alleged use of chemical weapons, and Damascus, which labelled the latest incident in eastern Syria a “war crime”.
The United States threw its support behind a United Nations plea for a ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta. “These attacks must end now,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said.
In Eastern Ghouta, which lies east of the capital and has been besieged since 2013, residents had no time to mourn their dead or treat their wounded from the previous day of bombardment.
“These are the worst four days that Eastern Ghouta has ever gone through,” said Hamza, an overwhelmed doctor at the local Erbin clinic who was treating wounded patients.
“From 2011 until now, there has never been the level of bombardment we’ve seen in the last 96 hours.”
The death toll in Thursday’s strikes mounted steadily throughout the day, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights giving 67 civilians killed by the evening.
Dozens of children
That brought to well over 210 the number of civilians killed since the regime launched a campaign on Monday of heavy air raids on the area, which has an estimated 400 000 residents.
The Observatory said at least 53 of the victims were children.
“Children and teachers are terrified that at any moment they could be hit. The siege means there is nowhere for them to escape,” said Sonia Khush, Save the Children’s Syria response director.
“There must be an immediate halt to the fighting and an end to the siege.”
Moayad al-Hafi, a rescue worker, said his team was targeted as they were pulling bodies out 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.
At least two civilians were killed in retaliatory rebel mortar fire on government-controlled areas of Damascus, according to state news agency SANA.
Eastern Ghouta was one of several so-called de-escalation zones agreed last year by three of the main outside players in the conflict – Turkey, Iran and Russia.
Ankara announced on Thursday it would host a new three-way summit to revive efforts to end the war, which has killed at least 340 000 people and displaced millions since 2011.
Recent attempts to bring the seven-year conflict’s protagonists and brokers to the table have floundered, but the UN made a fresh call this week for conflicting sides to halt fighting.
The US backed the plea but Russia – a longtime ally of Syria’s government – shrugged it off on Thursday.
“That is not realistic,” Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told reporters at the UN in New York.
US strikes regime forces
A US military official said the US-led coalition that still assists Kurdish-led forces in the hunt for surviving ISIS members in eastern Syria killed at least 100 pro-regime fighters overnight.
The US Central Command said the coalition acted in self-defence after pro-government forces moved on an area under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
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.
Syrian state media confirmed that dozens were killed in the clash but appeared to deny the forces were army soldiers, describing them as “popular forces”.
The head of the Britain-based monitoring group, Rami Abdel Rahman, said the aim of the attack appeared to be the capture of a key oil field and a major gas plant in an SDF-held area.
The Omar oil field, one of the biggest in Syria, had a pre-war output of 30 000 barrels per day, while the Conoco gas field had a pre-war capacity of 13 million cubic metres a day.
According to the Observatory, the forces that launched the attack on SDF positions were local tribal fighters loyal to Assad and Afghan Shi’ite militia fighting alongside the regime.
In a letter addressed to the UN secretary general, the Syrian foreign ministry said the attack “represents a war crime and a crime against humanity”.
It accused the United States of trying to set up permanent bases in Syria under the cover of fighting terrorism.