Syria Troops Advance in Rebel-Held Area

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian troops and allied militias have captured a number of villages and towns in a rebel-held region near the capital, in the largest advance since a wide-scale offensive began last month, state media and activists reported Sunday.

Syria's Central Military Media said government forces captured at least six villages and towns along the edge of eastern Ghouta in the advance that began late Saturday.

A reporter from the state-run Al-Ikhbariyah TV, who accompanied the troops, broadcast from Nashabiyah, a village on the southeastern edge of eastern Ghouta. The reporter said the Syrian troops had crossed a "moat" and seized around 12 square kilometers (4.6 square miles). The advance was backed by intense shelling and airstrikes.

Rebel factions said they launched a counteroffensive Sunday, sending fighters behind government lines in a series of attacks. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels regained control of at least one town, while fighting continues.

The Observatory and the Syrian Civil Defense said civilians had fled their homes because of the advancing troops, many of them taking cover in underground shelters. "It is a scorched-earth policy," said Ghouta-based activist Nour Adam. "People are moving out because of the relentless bombing."

Eastern Ghouta, home to some 400,000 people, has been under a crippling siege and daily bombardment for months. More than 600 civilians have been killed in the last two weeks alone.

Meanwhile, no civilians have exited through a humanitarian corridor set up by Russia and the Syrian government nearly a week ago.

Russia has accused the rebels of preventing civilians from leaving, allegations denied by the insurgents. The rebels say the humanitarian corridor is part of government efforts to forcibly displace the population, and have called on government forces to implement a full cease-fire adopted by the U.N. Security Council.

Al-Ikhbariya TV quoted an unnamed military official as saying the latest operation came in response to the shelling of Damascus and surrounding areas. The official said preparations are underway to deliver food to civilians in the besieged area.

The U.N. has said a daily five-hour humanitarian pause ordered by Russia is not enough time to deliver aid. Ghouta has not had any aid delivered since November, when a limited amount entered the area. Eastern Ghouta has been besieged by government forces since 2013.