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Syrians stream out of a Damascus suburb as it is overrun by government forces

Hundreds of civilians leave rebel-held Eastern Ghouta in the countryside of Damascus on Thursday. (Omar Sanadiki/Reuters)

BEIRUT — Thousands of people streamed out of the Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus on Thursday in the first exodus from that besieged enclave, after Syrian forces stormed a town in the biggest remaining rebel stronghold near the capital.

The throngs swarming out of the town of Hammouriya foreshadowed the chaos that may lie ahead as loyalist forces advance into the remaining rebel-held areas, home to an estimated 393,000 people, according to the United Nations.

The departures came after an overnight blitz of airstrikes that left civilians and fighters scrambling to escape, residents and human rights monitors reported. Syrian state television said 10,000 people had fled to ­government-held territory by ­midafternoon. An equal number of people fled in the other direction, racing across fields to remain behind rebel lines because they feared being detained by the government, residents said.

A Syrian charity worker, trapped as regime forces rained down bombs on his town, sent these Whatsapp messages over the course of an hour on March 14. (Video: Louisa Loveluck, Joyce Lee, William Neff/The Washington Post)

This latest government advance came as Syria marked the seventh anniversary of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, which began with peaceful protests before quickly mutating into a raging war.

The fight for Eastern Ghouta is turning into one of the bloodiest battles yet, with at least 1,540 people killed and nearly 6,000 injured since the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution mandating a 30-day cease-fire nearly three weeks ago, according to figures provided by the Eastern Ghouta health directorate.

As the scenes on Thursday demonstrated, the war that already has claimed the lives of as many as half a million people is far from over. The Syrian Network for Human Rights, which counts only civilian casualties, said in a report Thursday that 217,764 civilians have been killed since the first peaceful protests in March 2011. Huge numbers of men also have died fighting for both sides in a conflict that has drawn foreign powers into a scramble for influence over the strategic country, located at the heart of the Middle East.

Although Assad loyalists have recaptured much of the area they lost to the rebels, the opposition still controls about a fifth of the country. The mostly Islamist rebels have controlled the Eastern Ghouta cluster of towns and villages since the earliest days of the revolt. Although loyalist forces have now seized more than half of the enclave, the main population centers remain with the rebels, raising fears of even worse bloodshed ahead.

Far from halting the violence, the cease-fire resolution has seemed only to intensify the government push to recapture the enclave. The offensive has accelerated despite appeals from the international community and warnings from the Trump administration that the United States is prepared to take unilateral military action to enforce the truce.

Throughout the day, state television broadcast live coverage of columns of families leaving Hammouriya, clutching luggage and sacks of flour. The first people to leave limped out on foot, men bowed under heavy suitcases, women carrying children and torn plastic bags of clothes.

Isolated and vulnerable: A look at Ghouta, the rebel held enclave under siege

An injured, blood-soaked man was carried by relatives on a stretcher. An elderly man pushed his wife in a wheelchair; another herded a dozen cows, another a flock of sheep.

By midafternoon, the trickle swelled to a flood as buses, pickup trucks and Syrian army vehicles showed up in the town, and people piled on board, now bringing furniture and mattresses. They were joined by others fleeing in their cars, creating a crush of people, vehicles and animals that clogged the road leading out of the enclave.

A few carried portraits of Assad, declaring their allegiance to the government. Some walked silently past the camera, while others paused to speak, thanking the Syrian army and denouncing the rebels.

“Thank God, this is because of the Syrian army and our leader, Doctor Bashar. May God save him and destroy the terrorists,” one man said.

A woman said the rebels had shot her son because her husband and other son worked for the Syrian military. “May God not forgive them,” she said.

Several said that they had wanted to leave earlier but that the rebels had prevented them from doing so. “They made our veins run dry with fear,” said one woman. “We are talking from our hearts, and we thank President Bashar for ridding us of the terrorists.”

The live broadcast was punctuated by the roar of warplanes overhead and the crashing thuds of explosions as the bombing of the enclave continued elsewhere.

Hammouriya had been one of a handful of towns in Eastern Ghouta that had staged pro-Assad demonstrations in recent days, calling on the government to reclaim the area, the rebels to leave and the bombing to stop.

But the government continued to advance. Activists said they counted more than 300 airstrikes on Eastern Ghouta on Wednesday, with most of them concentrated on Hammouriya.

A man who escaped behind rebel lines described in a Skype call a desperate scramble to flee toward those areas for people who feared being detained by the government for their association with the revolt against Assad’s rule.

“I escaped through some fields. There was intense bombing around me. I saw six helicopters around me, and they were bombing,” said the man, who works as a journalist in the area and spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears for his safety.

“The escape was like being born again because the ordeal felt so dangerous,” he said. “There were so many people. Women, children, young men, civil defense workers — they were all moving through the fields. Then one by one, we moved through destroyed buildings to escape.”

Residents sent desperate pleas for help over social media as the bombs fell, saying ambulances were unable to reach the wounded.

“Whole families are killed. Their bodies are in the streets. No one can help due to the bombing, and the shelters are burning with children and women and families,” according to a message posted on a social media group by Nour Adam, an activist in Eastern Ghouta who said he had received the description from a friend inside Hammouriya. Two hours later, he said, his friend stopped answering the phone.

Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul and Heba Habib in Stockholm contributed to this report.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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