Rescuers in Syria are searching for survivors of an air strike in besieged Eastern Ghouta which killed 15 children who had been hiding in the basement of a school.
The children, and two women who were also killed, had been hiding below ground in the Arbin neighbourhood to escape Syrian and Russian strikes which have pummelled the area for weeks.
The opposition National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces alleged that the shelter had been deliberately targeted by Russian aircraft, and that they were responsible for a "massacre".
They posted pictures online showing the damage to the building’s infrastructure, saying a rocket had penetrated three floors before exploding in the basement.
مجزرة ارتكبها الطيران الروسي في مدينة #عربين في #الفوطة_الشرقية راح ضحيتها ١٧ شهيدا "١٥ طفلاُ وامرأتان" بعد استهداف أحد الملاجئ التي تأوي عائلات#سوريا #دمشق pic.twitter.com/HhYYaTPdoy
— الائتلاف الوطني (@SyrianCoalition) March 20, 2018
The United Nations said that some 50,000 civilians had fled the Damascus suburb to government-held areas in recent days, 70 per cent of whom women and children.
They said many were suffering from diarrhea and respiratory problems that can be deadly.
Russia, which backs the Bashar al-Assad regime, put the number at 79,000. This would leave around 300,000 residents trapped in the three rebel-held blockaded areas of Eastern Ghouta.
Some 1,500 have been killed since the government launched its offensive in mid-February, one of the most brutal of the seven-year war.
Rebel leaders from Jaish al-Islam were said to have rejected a deal offered by the government – either to leave to opposition areas in northern Syria or settle their situation and become part of local pro-government militias that would maintain security.
Hours later the regime began bombarding the neighbourhood of Douma, the group’s largest remaining stronghold in the enclave, and clashes broke out between the two sides.
Some residents told the Telegraph that rebel fighters had prevented them from leaving through the government’s “humanitarian” corridors. Others said they feared arrest by regime forces.
Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN human rights chief, told an informal meeting of the Security Council that the Syrian government’s five-year siege has involved "pervasive war crimes," use of chemical weapons and starvation as a weapon of war.
Mr Hussein was blocked from addressing a formal council meeting by a Russian procedural maneuver, but he delivered his hard-hitting speech to an open meeting anyway, decrying "mind-numbing crimes"
"The siege of eastern Ghouta by the Syrian government forces, half a decade long, has involved pervasive war crimes, the use of chemical weaponry, enforced starvation as a weapon of warfare, and the denial of essential and life-saving aid," he said.
Assad has grown increasingly confident of victory, with his forces likely weeks away from victory over the opposition in the suburb.
Over the weekend he appeared in a rare video which showed him driving a Honda Sedan through the streets of the capital Damascus to the frontlines near Eastern Ghouta.
He was seen visiting the area to congratulate his forces and shake hands with cheering residents, some of whom held up their children so he could kiss them on the cheek.
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“You are the sons of our country,” he said. “We will protect all the people of Ghouta.”