By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian jets on Monday bombed residential areas in the eastern countryside of Damascus killing and injuring dozens in some of the heaviest bombing raids on the main rebel enclave near the capital in months, residents and activists said.
At least 22 people were killed and scores injured after four aerial raids hit a crowded district in the city of Douma, the main urban center of the Eastern Ghouta rebel stronghold to the east of the capital.
Many other bodies were still under the rubble, civil workers said.
The pro-opposition civil defense said on its twitter account that there were 21 raids alone on the other towns of Hamurya, Harasta and Saqba in the besieged Eastern Ghouta.
In the town of Saqba, just south of Douma, at least five people were killed when jets believed to be Russian struck a main market square in the town, two residents said.
Social media footage by the civil defense showed volunteers and civilians carrying wounded on stretchers after they were extracted from under the rubble of destroyed buildings in the once teeming areas.
“We are civilians. Why are they hitting us? Jets are above us. There are no terrorists,” said a screaming young man in footage shown on pro-opposition Orient TV.
The Syrian army said on Monday it had hit at the heart of insurgent positions in Jobar, Arbeen and Zamalka and areas in the Eastern Ghouta, knocking down missile launchers and killing scores of “terrorists.”
The Syrian army has said it is fighting against foreign financed terrorists who fire mortars on government-held areas in the capital. They deny they target civilians.
The intensive raids followed an offensive begun by the Syrian army and its allies since late February to encircle the rebel-held Barza neighborhood of the capital and cut it off from nearby Qaboun.
The army wants to destroy tunnels in Barza and Qaboun that it says rebels use to provide essential goods to Eastern Ghouta towns that have for years helped the area withstand the siege.
“Today the regime shelled and bombed … they have not left a place they have not hit. They want to get the tunnels,” said Abu Omar, a commander from rebel group Failaq al Rahman.
Government troops, backed by Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias, have been snuffing out pockets of rebellion near the capital, forcing surrender on besieged rebels.
The densely populated rural area east of Damascus known as the Eastern Ghouta has been besieged since 2013.
Several hundred thousand people are believed to be trapped there with the authorities making it difficult for humanitarian aid to be delivered by United Nations organizations.
Residents believe the government aims to push them into an eventual surrender through siege and bombardment that forces them to reach local agreements that guarantee fighters safe passage to other rebel-held parts of the country.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editinb by Toni Reinhold)