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Syria war: Shelling and strikes despite Eastern Ghouta 'pause'

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Smoke rises from the besieged rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, Syria, on 27 February 2018Image copyright
AFP

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Russian media said not a single civilian left the besieged Eastern Ghouta on Tuesday

Fighting continued in the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta area of Syria during the first daily five-hour “pause” ordered by the government’s ally Russia.

Activists said there were government air and artillery strikes, while Russia said rebels had shelled a “humanitarian corridor” meant to let civilians leave.

As a result, there were no UN aid deliveries or medical evacuations.

Some 393,000 people are trapped in the enclave near Damascus, which has been besieged by the government since 2013.

Medics say more than 500 people have been killed since the government intensified its bombardment nine days ago in an attempt to retake the enclave.

Meanwhile, France has urged Russia to use its influence over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to secure a 30-day truce covering the whole country.

The UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution demanding a nationwide cessation of hostilities on Saturday, but it did not specify a start date.

“Russia is one of the only actors that can get the regime to implement the resolution,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow.

What is happening on the ground?

The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said it had received reports that fighting had continued after the Russian-ordered pause began at 09:00 (07:00 GMT) on Tuesday.

“Clearly, the situation on the ground is not such that convoys can go in or medical evacuations can go out,” spokesman Jens Laerke told reporters in Geneva.

The World Health Organization said it had a list of more than 1,000 critically sick and wounded people who urgently needed to be evacuated.

The situation in the Eastern Ghouta was comparatively calm early on Tuesday. However, one civilian was killed by shellfire in the rebel-held town of Douma before the pause started, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The UK-based monitoring group also reported a number of violations in the five hours that followed, including air strikes by government planes and helicopters, and artillery shelling in the town of Jisrin that killed a child and injured seven people.

The Syrian state news agency, Sana, reported that “terrorists” had shelled the route of the humanitarian corridor leading to the government-controlled al-Wafideen checkpoint, which is north-east of Douma, and were using “human shields”.

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Media caption“At least in heaven there’s food”: The children caught up in Eastern Ghouta air strikes

Russian media said not a single civilian had left the besieged area as a result.

The accusations of firing mortars was denied by the two Islamist rebel groups that dominate the Eastern Ghouta, Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman, while the Syrian military said it had not carried out air strikes.

Rebel factions also reiterated that jihadists from the al-Qaeda-linked alliance Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), who have a small presence in the Eastern Ghouta, had to be evacuated in exchange for a truce. The government and Russia say their bombing campaign is targeting HTS members in the enclave.

What was supposed to happen?

The Russian defence ministry announced that government forces would “cease strikes on terrorists” from 09:00 until 14:00 local time (07:00-12:00 GMT) daily from Tuesday “with the aim of immediately saving the peaceful population”.

Image copyright
AFP

Image caption

Ambulances were seen waiting at the government-controlled al-Wafideen checkpoint

One “humanitarian corridor” to al-Wafideen had been prepared, with help from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, to allow civilians to leave and the sick and wounded to be evacuated, it said.

Residents would be informed via leaflets, text messages and videos, it added.

Will the pauses allow aid to be brought in?

France’s foreign minister said it was vital that humanitarian aid was delivered.

A tightening of the government’s siege since November has led to the exhaustion of food supplies and extremely inflated prices inside the Eastern Ghouta. Almost 12% of children under five years old are acutely malnourished – a level the UN says is unprecedented in Syria.

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Media captionRawaa has been living in a basement with around 75 others for months

There are also severe shortages of medical supplies, with doctors forced to treat severely injured patients without general anaesthetic drugs, intravenous antibiotics, blood bags and clean bandages.

Humanitarian organisations say they need to be sure any truces are taking effect on the ground before sending in aid workers and vehicles.

Dr Mohamad Katoub, a Turkey-based doctor with the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), which supports hospitals in the Eastern Ghouta and other rebel-held areas, told the BBC: “We don’t believe that this truce will bring any benefits for the civilians inside Eastern Ghouta. Five hours is not enough to do anything.”

Will people be able to get out during the pauses?

Firas Abdullah, a journalist for the pro-opposition Ghouta Media Center who lives in Douma, told the BBC on Tuesday that it was far too dangerous to venture outside, let alone try to reach the al-Wafideen checkpoint.

“I went outside but only for a while,” Firas Abdullah said. “After half a minute of this ceasefire, shells were dropped. Even if anyone tries to leave, he will be shot by the snipers of the regime checkpoint.”

Al-Wafideen has long been the formal point for people to enter and exit Eastern Ghouta.

However, only a small proportion of the population – public sector employees and males over 40 – were permitted to leave before the government siege was tightened, according to Reach Initiative, which is monitoring the humanitarian situation there. Women and children were reportedly forbidden by rebel groups from leaving for security reasons.

Reach said risks included sniper fire, landmines, shelling, verbal and physical harassment, detention and, in the case of women, sexual harassment, humiliating inspections and beatings.

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