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Air strikes, shelling strain Moscow-backed Damascus truce

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Air strikes killed at least nine people in the Eastern Ghouta area of Syria near Damascus overnight and insurgent shelling from the rebel-held area landed near the Russian embassy on Tuesday, a war monitor reported.

A boy sits near rubble of damaged buildings in Arbin, a town in the Damascus countryside, Syria July 25, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the deaths in the town of Arbin marked the first civilian casualties since a Russian-backed truce in the area came into effect. The Syrian military declared a cessation of hostilities there on Saturday.

Later, two residents said jets believed to be Russian that people identify by their flight at high altitudes and in sorties struck again residential buildings in the same areas, killing at least two people and causing scores of injuries.

But Russia, a military ally of President Bashar al-Assad, dismissed reports of air strikes in the area as “an absolute lie” meant to discredit Moscow’s peacemaking efforts.

“During working contacts with representatives of opposition groups in Eastern Ghouta it was confirmed that no military actions had been conducted in this de-escalation zone, there had been no air strikes,” the Russian defence ministry spokesman said in a statement on Tuesday.

Russia said on Monday it had deployed military police in Eastern Ghouta to try to enforce a de-escalation zone it said it had agreed with the Syrian opposition there.

In a second statement, issued late on Tuesday, the Russian Defence Ministry said it had delivered 10 tons of food and medical supplies to Eastern Ghouta, and evacuated sick and injured civilians from opposition-held areas.

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Social media footage downloaded by activists in the Ghouta area showed videos of children in coffins next to wailing relatives in the earlier overnight raids on Arbin.

“Is this the humanitarian aid that Russia has promised us? ... Children sleeping in their beds and the jets come to bomb and destroy us. What have we done to deserve this?” said an elderly man as he pointed to bodies lying on the floor in widely circulated footage.

The Syrian army and its allies have been shelling and bombing the heavily populated rebel-held pocket east of Damascus for weeks in an attempt to make advances.

Tuesday’s shelling near the Russian embassy marked the first time rebels had hit government-held areas of central Damascus since the truce began.

The Observatory said the overnight air strikes wounded 30 people in Eastern Ghouta while another four were injured by further air strikes that targeted the area on Tuesday morning.

The Civil Defence for rural Damascus, a rescue service operating in the area, said the dead included five children and two women.

In a statement on its Facebook page, Civil Defence put the number of wounded and missing at 50. The air strikes hit the area at 11 p.m. (2000 GMT), it said.

There was no immediate comment from the Syrian military on the report, and no mention of air strikes by state media.

Witnesses said three mortar shells landed in the neighbourhood where the Russian embassy is located in northeastern Damascus. There were no reports of casualties.

The Syrian army, with military support from Russia and Iran, has dealt the opposition a string of defeats around the capital over the last year, seizing back control of areas including Daraya and Moadamiya.

Reporting by Tom Perry/Sarah Dadouch and Dmitry Solovyov/Jack Stubbs in Moscow and Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; Editing by Catherine Evans and James Dalgleish