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Syrian Military Pummels IS-Held Areas  04/22 10:00

   BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian government forces used warplanes, helicopters and 
artillery on Sunday to pound districts of the capital held by the Islamic State 
group, in a bid to enforce an evacuation deal reached with the militants 
earlier in the week.

   The militants agreed to give up their last pocket in southern Damascus on 
Friday but have yet to begin surrendering to government forces and relocating 
to IS-held areas elsewhere in the country.

   State-run al-Ikhbariya TV showed thick gray smoke billowing from the IS-held 
Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood on Sunday, and government warplanes streaking 
overhead amid heavy bombardment of the area. Hundreds of IS fighters and allied 
militants are holed up in Hajar al-Aswad and the nearby Yarmouk Palestinian 
refugee camp.

   Residents of Damascus reported hearing loud booms throughout the night and 
Sunday morning.

   President Bashar Assad has escalated his military campaign to retake all 
remaining enclaves in the capital and surrounding areas. The IS-held areas in 
southern Damascus are the last holdouts, after rebels evacuated the eastern 
Ghouta suburbs following a fierce government offensive and an alleged poison 
gas attack in the town of Douma.

   Chemical weapons inspectors collected samples from Douma on Saturday, two 
weeks after the suspected gas attack there prompted retaliatory strikes by 
Western powers on the Syrian government's chemical facilities.

   The site visit, confirmed by the Organization for the Prohibition of 
Chemical Weapons, will allow the agency to proceed with an independent 
investigation to determine what chemicals, if any, were used in the April 7 
attack that medical workers said killed more than 40 people. The OPCW mission 
is not mandated to apportion blame for the attack.

   Douma was the final target of the government's sweeping campaign to seize 
back control of eastern Ghouta from rebels after seven years of revolt. 
Militants gave up the town days after the alleged attack.

   The Syrian government and its ally Russia denied responsibility for the 
suspected chemical attack.

   Meanwhile, rebels have begun evacuating three towns in the eastern Qalamoun 
region in the Damascus countryside.

   Al-Ikhbariya TV said that 35 buses left the towns of Ruhaiba, Jayroud, and 
al-Nasriya on Saturday carrying hundreds of rebels and their families to 
opposition-held territory in northern Syria.

   The station said the evacuations would continue for three days.

   On Sunday, Sweden's Ambassador to the United Nations said that he and other 
Security Council envoys had agreed to work on a "meaningful mechanism" to work 
out who was behind the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria.

   Olof Skoog spoke in southern Sweden after an annual, informal working 
meeting with the U.N. Security Council ambassadors.

   The meeting comes just a week after the U.S., France and Britain bombed 
suspected Syrian chemical weapons facilities, after accusing Assad's government 
of being behind the attack in Douma.


(KA)

 
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