March 19 (UPI) -- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited Eastern Ghouta, the Damascus suburb newly recaptured by government forces, in a rare public appearance.
Assad greeted cheering Syrian troops on Saturday, after the Syrian military announced that about 80 percent of the area was retaken from armed anti-government groups that have held the territory since 2013, Al Jazeera reported.
"The people of Damascus appreciate all of you for protecting the city, and we will remember this for tens of years, or even generations. This battle has been bigger than Syria. Today you are fighting this battle on behalf of the whole world," Assad told his troops. "For each bullet you shot that killed a terrorist, you changed the balance of the world."
Assad rarely ventures from his presidential palace in Damascus, but Syrian government television showed him driving his own car to meet his army.
The bombardment of Eastern Ghouta by Syrian troops with Russian air support has killed at least 1,250 people. Activists in the area said hundreds of civilians were arrested as they attempted to leave the area, adding that air raids on Monday killed at least eight civilians. The United Nations said that at least 20,000 people have fled Eastern Ghouta since the bombings began several weeks ago. The 300,000 people left in the enclave face shortages of food and medical supplies.