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Civilians flee as two big Syria battles enter decisive phases

By Tom Perry and Dahlia Nehme

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Thousands of civilians were fleeing from besieged enclaves at opposite ends of Syria on Friday as two major battles in the multi-sided war entered decisive phases, with hundreds of thousands of people trapped in the path of both assaults.

Air strikes killed scores of people in eastern Ghouta, a war monitor said, and weary residents streamed out on foot for a second day, as Russian-backed government forces pressed their campaign to capture the last big rebel bastion near Damascus.

On another front, Turkish and allied rebel forces struck the northern Kurdish-held town of Afrin, killing more than 40 people including children, Syrian Kurdish forces and a monitor said.

The Kurdish YPG militia defending Afrin said it battled Turkish forces who tried to storm the town from the north.

The two offensives, one backed by Russia and the other led by Turkey, have shown how Syrian factions and their foreign allies are aggressively reshaping the map of control after the defeat of Islamic State's self-proclaimed caliphate last year.

The Syrian war entered its eighth year this week having killed half a million people and driven more than 11 million from their homes, including nearly 6 million who have fled abroad in one of the worst refugee crises of modern times.

The government launched its offensive on eastern Ghouta a month ago, and Turkey began its cross-border assault in Afrin in January. In both cases, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been trapped inside encircled pockets on the battlefield.

An estimated 12,000-16,000 people left Ghouta in recent days, while fighting in the Afrin region has reportedly displaced more than 48,000, said Linda Tom, a U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman in Syria.

AIR STRIKES KILL 80, CIVILIANS FLEE

Backed by Russia and Iran, government forces have thrust deep into eastern Ghouta on the capital's outskirts, splintering the rebel enclave into three separate zones. The United Nations believes up to 400,000 people have been trapped in the Ghouta satellite towns and farmland, short of food and medicine.

For the first time in the month since the government unleashed the Ghouta offensive, one of the deadliest of the war, residents are fleeing in their thousands.

The Syrian army and allied forces have recaptured 70 percent of the territory that was under insurgent control in the enclave, it said on Friday.

The military statement said it secured the exit of thousands of civilians. "The army's general command calls on the sons of our noble people to come out," it added.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, said air strikes in eastern Ghouta killed 80 people, including 14 children, in the rebel towns of Kafr Batna, Saqba and Harasta on Friday.

Moscow and Damascus accuse rebels of having forced people to stay. The rebels deny this and say the government aims to depopulate opposition areas.

Syrian State TV broadcast footage of men, women and children walking along a dirt road near the town of Hammouriyeh, many of them carrying bags, towards army positions. Some waved to the camera and said the factions had stopped them from going out.

The mayor of the nearby army-held town of Adra, Jassem al-Mahmoud, said around 5,000 people were sheltering there so far and as many as 50,000 were expected, who would be guaranteed food and medical help.

The outflow began on Thursday with thousands fleeing the southernmost of the Ghouta pockets. The spokesman for Failaq al-Rahman, the rebel faction controlling that zone, says the safety of civilians cannot be guaranteed in government areas.

The fighters refused a Russian proposal for local talks inside Syria over surrendering and leaving their enclave, added Wael Olwan, who is based in Turkey.

The Ghouta factions, including Failaq, said they were ready to talk directly with Moscow in Geneva about a ceasefire.

During offensives elsewhere, Damascus has taken turf after allowing rebel fighters and opposition activists to leave for opposition areas near Turkey. Russia has offered similar safe passage to rebels in eastern Ghouta, but they have refused.

ALARMING REPORTS

The Ghouta and Afrin campaigns have both continued despite a U.N. Security Council demand for a 30-day ceasefire. Moscow and Damascus argue their targets in Ghouta are terrorists unprotected by the truce. Turkey says the same of the Kurdish YPG militia it is fighting in Afrin.

The foreign ministers of Turkey, Iran and Russia convened a meeting in the Kazakh capital Astana to discuss Syria. The three states last year agreed to contain the war with "de-escalation zones", while still pursuing their own war objectives in Syria.

Turkey wants to crush the YPG which it views as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency in Turkey. The YPG became during Syria's war the key U.S. partner in the fight against Islamic State.

A Turkish air strike hit Afrin's main hospital on Friday night, killing 16 people, the YPG and the Observatory said. Turkey's army denies hitting civilians in its Afrin campaign.

Afrin's Kurdish-led civil authority said Turkey expanded air and artillery strikes on the town this week, killing dozens in the past two days. It said the main water supply was cut, and accused Ankara of trying to make residents leave.

"Till now, tens of thousands of civilians have been forced to flee, in fear of the death staring at them and their children," it said. "The scale of the humanitarian tragedy has now exceeded the capacity of the administration."

A spokeswoman for the U.N. human rights office said it had had "deeply alarming reports" of civilians killed and injured in Afrin, and of the Kurds preventing civilians from leaving.

Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen TV broadcast footage from the Afrin area showing cars, small trucks, tractors and groups of people on foot leaving the town.

An elderly man told the channel he had left on foot at 2 a.m. when shells started falling. "There are a lot of people leaving the city as well, and a lot still inside," he said.

President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey had "largely solved the Afrin issue". "We are nearing the end in Afrin," he said.

(Reporting by Tom Perry, Dahlia Nehme and Ellen Francis in Beirut, Firas Makdesi in Damascus, Jack Stubbs in Moscow, Tom Miles in Geneva and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Turkey; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Peter Graff and William Maclean)