Syrian child Khaled al-Ghorani lies at a clinic in Eastern Ghouta on March 1, 2018 after his hand was amputated
Syrian child Khaled al-Ghorani lies at a clinic in Eastern Ghouta on March 1, 2018 after his hand was amputated

West ups heat on Damascus as Ghouta civilians wait for aid

Sat, Mar. 3, 2018
SYRIA - 3 March 2018: Western powers turned up the heat on Damascus on Friday as tens of thousands of civilians in Syria's battered rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta awaited desperately needed aid.

More than 600 civilians have been killed in the enclave outside Damascus since Russia-backed regime forces launched an assault on February 18.

Eastern Ghouta's 400,000 residents have lived under regime siege since 2013, facing severe food and medicine shortages even before the latest offensive.

As dozens of aid trucks remained unable to enter the enclave, the UN Human Rights Council postponed voting on a British resolution condemning the crisis in Eastern Ghouta, after member states failed to agree on a final text.

Violence has been tempered in the enclave since Russia on Tuesday began daily pauses in fighting -- but air strikes continue to claim lives and a total ceasefire across Syria demanded by the UN has not come into effect.

The recent onslaught has shocked the international community and left medical staff in Eastern Ghouta struggling to cope.

On Friday, the United States, Germany and France upped the pressure on Damascus as last weekend's UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire has failed to stop fighting.

US President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed in a phone call that the Syrian regime must be held accountable.

"This applies both to the Assad regime's deployment of chemical weapons and for its attacks against civilians and the blockade of humanitarian support," a German chancellery statement said.

- Hiding in cellars -

Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, vowed there would be "no impunity" in the event of further chemical weapons use in Syria.

Washington has asked the UN Security Council to set up a new inquiry into chemical weapons attacks in Syria after reports of suspected chlorine use in Eastern Ghouta, according to a draft resolution obtained by AFP on Thursday.

The Syrian government has denied using chemical weapons and Russia has questioned UN findings that it carried out sarin and chlorine attacks.

It was unclear when the US proposal, or a separate Russian draft resolution, on the Syrian chemical inquiry would come to a vote.

On Friday, distrust ran high among civilians in Eastern Ghouta on the fourth day of a daily five-hour "humanitarian pause".

The pause announced by Russia has lessened but not halted the deadly bombing, which has ripped through homes and reduced residential areas to grey rubble.

On Friday, 11 civilians were killed across Eastern Ghouta in air strikes and shelling before and after the truce, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

Embattled Syrian civilians have not left the enclave, despite a Russian offer of safe passage out during the daily halt in fighting.

"People are still in their cellars because they don't feel safe," a 24-year-old who gave his name as Mohammed told AFP in the devastated town of Hammuriyeh.

Damascus and Moscow accuse the armed opposition of preventing civilians from leaving.

In the main town of Douma, 25-year-old Malik Mohammad told AFP the daily pause had not brought any peace of mind to civilians.

"During the pause, the bombing continues for five hours outside Douma and as soon as it ends, it starts up again inside."

- Meagre supplies -

Early Friday, before the 07:00 GMT start of the pause, warplanes pounded areas including Douma and the town of Zamalka, the Syrian Observatory said.

Rockets fell on Douma and Harasta during the pause, the Britain-based war monitor said, as regime forces advanced on the southern outskirts of the enclave.

People in Eastern Ghouta are surviving on what little food they have, sometimes relying on meagre meals of rice and bread from charities, an AFP correspondent said.

The price of rice and pasta has soared, as they become increasingly rare in shops.

Those who grow food have been unable to visit their land due to the bombardment.

On Thursday, Jan Egeland, the head of the UN's humanitarian taskforce for Syria, said he hoped aid convoys may be able to go to Eastern Ghouta "in the next few days".

The only civilians known to have left Eastern Ghouta so far since the "humanitarian pause" took effect are an elderly Pakistani couple who were evacuated on Wednesday to Damascus.

More than 340,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since Syria's civil war started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

The war has since spiralled into a complex conflict involving foreign powers.

Since January, Turkey-led Syrian rebels have advanced steadily against Kurdish fighters in the northwestern Kurdish enclave of Afrin near the Turkish border.

On Thursday, Turkish air strikes killed three Kurdish fighters and 14 allied pro-regime fighters in Afrin, the Observatory said.
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