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Syria's Assad visits troops in battle-scarred Ghouta

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad talks with government troops in the enclave of Eastern Ghouta, outside Damascus, on March 18, 2018 (AFP Photo/HO)

Damascus (AFP) - Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on Sunday paid a first visit in years to battered East Ghouta to congratulate his troops for a gruelling assault to oust rebels from near Damascus.

Syrian state television broadcast photos of the president dressed in a shirt and jacket surrounded by soldiers, some perched on a tank behind him, in an unspecified part of Eastern Ghouta.

Rebels have held out in Eastern Ghouta since 2012, but a regime assault in the last month has retaken more than 80 percent of the former opposition bastion.

"The inhabitants of Damascus are more than grateful and they will maybe tell their children in the coming decades how you saved the capital," Assad told soldiers in a video released by his office.

The ferocious air and ground campaign against Eastern Ghouta has killed over 1,400 civilians since it was launched on February 18, a Britain-based monitor says, and sparked international outrage.

In that time some 50 civilians, including 10 children, have been killed by rebel shelling of Damascus, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.