Syria's Ghouta residents 'wait to die' as bombs fall

BEIRUT, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Residents of Syria's eastern Ghouta district said they were waiting their "turn to die" on Wednesday, after rockets and barrel bombs fell on the besieged rebel enclave targetted for days by some of the most intense bombardment of the war.

At least 10 people died in one village and more than 200 were injured early on Wednesday. At least 274 people have been killed in the district in the last three days, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.

Another 13 bodies, including five children, were recovered from the rubble of houses destroyed on Tuesday in the villages of Arbin and Saqba, the Observatory reported.

The eastern Ghouta, a densely populated agricultural district on the outskirts of Damascus, is the last major area near the capital still under rebel control.

The district, home to 400,000 people, has been besieged by government forces for years.

A massive escalation in air strikes since Sunday has become one of the most intense of the Syrian civil war, now entering its eighth year. The United Nations has denounced the bombardment, which has struck hospitals and other civilian infrastructure, saying such attacks could be war crimes.

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Fighting in Syria's Ghouta region
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Fighting in Syria's Ghouta region
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / Smoke rises from buildings following bombardment on the village of Mesraba in the rebel-held besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed dozens of civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / Hamza Al-Ajweh (Photo credit should read HAMZA AL-AJWEH/AFP/Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / Syrian Mohammed cries as he receives treatment at a make-shift hospital in Kafr Batna after being wounded with his mother in government air strikes on the town of Jisreen, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed dozens of civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / Ammar SULEIMAN (Photo credit should read AMMAR SULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian civil defence member carries an injured child rescued from between the rubble of buildings following government bombing in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed 44 civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A picture taken on February 17, 2018 shows a man walking next to another pushing a bicycle loaded with a carpet, down a rain-soaked street past damaged and destroyed buildings in the Syrian rebel-held enclave of Arbin in the Eastern Ghouta near the capital Damascus. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian man stands amid the rubble of buildings following government bombing in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed 44 civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / Syrian children cry at a make-shift hospital in Douma following air strikes on the Syrian village of Mesraba in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed dozens of civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / Hamza Al-Ajweh (Photo credit should read HAMZA AL-AJWEH/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian civilian inspects the damage following government bombing in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed 44 civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian civilians look at the rubble following government bombing in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed 44 civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian man carries a child injured in government bombing in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed 44 civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - FEBRUARY 17: Children are seen at the debris of buildings after Assad Regime's airstrikes and ground attacks to Harasta town, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria on February 17, 2018. (Photo by Mouneb Taim/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A Syrian man carries an infant injured in government bombing in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed 44 civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke rises from buildings in a rebel-held area of Harasta in Eastern Ghouta following government shelling on February 20, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian man carries an infant injured in government bombing in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed 44 civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
Children are inspect damages on a street in the besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria February 11, 2018.REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - FEBRUARY 17: Debris of buildings are seen after Assad Regime's airstrikes and ground attacks to Harasta town, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria on February 17, 2018. (Photo by Mouneb Taim/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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The pace of the strikes appeared to slacken overnight, but its intensity resumed later on Wednesday morning, the Observatory said. Pro-government forces fired hundreds of rockets and dropped barrel bombs from helicopters on the district's towns and villages.

"We are waiting our turn to die. This is the only thing I can say," said Bilal Abu Salah, 22, whose wife is five months pregnant with their first child in the biggest eastern Ghouta town Douma.

They fear the terror of the bombardment will bring her into labor early, he said.

"Nearly all people living here live in shelters now. There are five or six families in one home. There is no food, no markets," he said.

WARNINGS

A commander in the coalition fighting on behalf of Assad's government told Reuters overnight the bombing aims to prevent the rebels from targeting the eastern neighborhoods of Damascus with mortars. It may be followed by a ground campaign.

"The offensive has not started yet. This is preliminary bombing," the commander said.

The Syrian government and its ally Russia, which has backed Assad with air power since 2015, say they do not target civilians. They also deny using the inaccurate explosive barrel bombs dropped from helicopters whose use has been condemned by the United Nations.

17 PHOTOS
Heartbreaking scenes from Eastern Ghouta, Syria
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Heartbreaking scenes from Eastern Ghouta, Syria
Six-month-old twins Safa and Marwa, who suffer from malnutrition, are seen at their home in the Hazzeh area, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria, October 25, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh SEARCH "KHABIEH MALNUTRITION" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Two-and-a-half year old Hala al-Nufi, who suffers from a metabolic disorder which is worsening due to the siege and food shortages in the eastern Ghouta, reacts as she sits on a bed in the Saqba area, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria, October 25, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh SEARCH "KHABIEH MALNUTRITION" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
A Syrian shovels away debris from the higher floor of a building that was reportedly shelled by regime forces in the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta town of Kafr Batna on the outskirts of Damascus on November 20, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUALS COVERAGE OF SCENES OF DEATH AND INJURY An injured student lies on a bed at a field hospital in the town of Jisreen, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria October 31, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh TEMPLATE OUT
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - NOVEMBER 20: People inspect the debris of a building after Assad regime's warcrafts carried out airstrikes over residential areas of Kafr Batna town of the Eastern Ghouta region of Damascus in Syria on November 20, 2017. It is reported that 9 civilians, including 4 children were killed after the attack. (Photo by Anas Damashqy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A wounded man is seen lying in Douma hospital after heavy shelling in the rebel-held besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, November 19, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh TEMPLATE OUT
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A wounded man is seen lying in Douma hospital after heavy shelling in the rebel-held besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, November 19, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A man walks on rubble after an airstrike in the rebel-held city of Douma, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta Syria November 2, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Two-and-a-half year old Hala al-Nufi, who suffers from a metabolic disorder which is worsening due to the siege and food shortages in the eastern Ghouta, is held by her uncle in the Saqba area, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria, October 25, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh SEARCH "KHABIEH MALNUTRITION" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Children wait to be examined from Unicef health workers in Kafra Batna in the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta, Syria October 30, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUALS COVERAGE OF SCENES OF DEATH AND INJURY An injured student lies on a bed at a field hospital in the town of Jisreen, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria October 31, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh TEMPLATE OUT
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH Injured students lie on beds at a field hospital in the town of Jisreen, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria October 31, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Smoke rises at a damaged site in Ain Tarma, eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria, September 14, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
Children hold corncobs at Ain Tarma, eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria July 19, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A Syrian child is seen walking near International Red Cross vehicle in the rebel-held city of Douma, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria November 12, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
A Syrian woman walks past damaged buildings in Douma, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria November 15, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
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Conditions in eastern Ghouta, besieged since 2013, had increasingly alarmed aid agencies even before the latest assault, as shortages of food, medicine and other basic necessities caused suffering and illness.

Rebels have also been firing mortars on the districts of Damascus near eastern Ghouta, wounding two people on Wednesday, state media reported. Rebel mortars killed at least six people on Tuesday.

"Today, residential areas, Damascus hotels, as well as Russia’s Centre for Syrian Reconciliation, received massive bombardment by illegal armed groups from eastern Ghouta," Russia's Defence Ministry said late on Tuesday.

Eastern Ghouta is one of a group of "de-escalation zones" under a diplomatic ceasefire initiative agreed by Assad's allies Russia and Iran with Turkey which has backed the rebels. But a rebel group formerly affiliated with al Qaeda is not included in the truces and it has a small presence there.

(Reporting By Dahlia Nehme and Angus McDowall; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Peter Graff)

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