ADRA, Syria - Thousands of civilians poured out of Eastern Ghouta on Thursday as the capture of a key town brought Syria’s government even closer to retaking the devastated rebel enclave outside Damascus.

Defying expectations and calls to step down, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad was strengthening his grip on power Thursday as the conflict entered its eighth year.

His troops gained new ground in their ferocious assault against Eastern Ghouta, once the opposition’s main bastion on the outskirts of the capital.

Regime forces now control 70 percent of the area, a war monitor said, and have split the remaining rebel territory into three shrinking pockets.

After a fierce air and ground assault, regime forces on Thursday captured Hammuriyeh, a town in an isolated southern zone of Ghouta.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said Hammuriyeh fell to regime forces after fighters from the Faylaq al-Rahman rebel faction withdrew.

The regime’s advance into Hammuriyeh overnight had opened up a corridor through the town into government-controlled territory.

Streams of women and children escaped through that corridor on Thursday, carrying plastic bags stuffed with clothes and pushing strollers piled high with suitcases and rugs.

They reached a regime-held checkpoint in the region of Adra, where ambulances and a group of large green buses were waiting to take them to temporary shelters.

‘Largest displacement’

The Observatory said more than 12,000 people fled the enclave on Thursday in “the largest displacement since the beginning of the assault on Ghouta.”

The Russian military, which has backed the offensive on the rebel enclave, said as many as 13,000 people could leave Ghouta by the end of the day.

Eastern Ghouta had been the main rebel bastion on the outskirts of Damascus since 2012 and came under a devastating regime siege the following year.

That left the area’s roughly 400,000 residents struggling to secure food and hospitals crippled by shortages of medicine and equipment.

On Thursday, a joint convoy of food supplies for some 26,000 people entered Douma, the largest town in Ghouta and part of a separate rebel-controlled pocket.

“This is just a little of what these families need,” said the International Committee of the Red Cross, which was carrying out the delivery alongside the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the United Nations.

ICRC President Peter Maurer was present with the convoy, the first time he had accompanied such an operation.

Twenty-five trucks were delivering food parcels and flour bags to hunger-stricken residents in Douma when mortar rounds hit nearby. Aid workers were sent scrambling for cover, an AFP correspondent said, but were able to resume delivery shortly afterwards.

UN probe accuses Syrian troops of ‘systematic’ rape

Syrian troops and government-linked militia have systematically used rape and sexual violence against civilians, atrocities that amount to crimes against humanity, a UN-backed inquiry said Thursday.

Rebel fighters have committed similar violations, amounting to war crimes, but at a rate “considerably less common than rape by government forces and associated militia”, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria (COI) said in a new report.

The findings, submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council, are based on 454 interviews with sources that include survivors, eye witnesses and medical workers. The Damascus government has never granted COI investigators access to Syria.

Overall, the report adds to the overwhelming accounts of hellish suffering endured by Syrian civilians during the conflict that has claimed more than 350,000 lives as it enters its eighth year.

A woman from Syria’s third city of Homs told COI investigators that in 2012 “government forces entered her home and raped her daughter in front of her and her husband before shooting the daughter and the father”, the report said.

“The mother was then raped by two soldiers,” it added, in one of many examples of extreme violence.

Checkpoints controlled by the government or its allies, as well as detention centres, were identified as a main areas where sexual violence was perpetrated.

The COI notes that government troops detained “thousands of women and girls” from 2011 to the end of 2017, the period covered in the report.

Turkey says will take Afrin centre in ‘very short time’

Turkey on Thursday said it would oust Kurdish militia from the centre of Afrin in northern Syria “in a very short time”, as pro-Ankara forces surrounded the city.

Ankara on January 20 launched a military operation supporting Syrian rebels against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in its enclave of Afrin.

Turkey says the YPG is a “terrorist” offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging an insurgency inside Turkey since 1984.

“The circle is closing in around the terrorists. We anticipate that the centre of Afrin will be cleared of terrorists in a very short time, God willing in the coming days,” Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said.

The rebels and Turkish troops closed in on the main city on Wednesday.

Kalin told state broadcaster TRT in an interview that the offensive, dubbed operation Olive Branch, had secured 70 percent of the territory of Afrin district.

The US, which has worked closely with the YPG in the fight against militants, has urged restraint and the operation has increased tension between Turkey and its NATO ally.

But following a visit by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last month, the two countries said they would work together to solve a dispute over the control of the YPG-held Syrian town of Manbij.

Turkey has repeatedly warned it could extend its Afrin operation to Manbij, where the US military has a presence, and even further beyond that towards the Iraqi border.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was due to visit Washington on March 19 but the ministry said the visit had been postponed after Tillerson was fired by US President Donald Trump, who nominated CIA director Mike Pompeo as his replacement. But Kalin insisted the change would not affect agreements with the US over Manbij that have yet to be made fully clear.