Sunday 18 March 2018

Eastern Ghouta humanitarian pauses ‘not enough to allow evacuations’

Since the move was announced by Russia, no humanitarian aid has gone in to the Damascus suburb – and no civilians have left.

Russia claimed rebels had shelled the humanitarian corridor in eastern Ghouta (AP)
Russia claimed rebels had shelled the humanitarian corridor in eastern Ghouta (AP)

By Bassem Mroue and Jamey Keaten

The five-hour daily pauses in fighting in the besieged eastern suburbs of the Syrian capital Damascus are not enough to allow aid to enter or for civilians to be evacuated, a top UN aid official has said.

Jan Egeland also said the UN Security Council resolution over the weekend calling for a 30-day ceasefire has done little to improve the situation in the rebel-held region east of Damascus.

Mr Egeland’s comments came after the Russian military accused Syria’s rebels of shelling a humanitarian corridor that Moscow set up with the Syrian government in eastern Ghouta, offering residents of the embattled suburbs a way out.

Russian president Vladimir Putin had ordered a five-hour daily humanitarian pause to allow civilians to exit the region. The daily pauses began on Tuesday, but so far, no humanitarian aid has gone in – and no civilians have left.

Mr Egeland, who heads humanitarian aid matters in the office of the UN Syria envoy, said the Russian plan for the five-hour pauses was “positive”, but insufficient. He said that no aid has been sent to eastern Ghouta because “we did not get a single facilitation letter by the government”.

Residents said they do not trust the truce. The UN and aid agencies have criticised the unilateral arrangement, saying it gave no guarantees of safety for residents wishing to leave.

The eastern Ghouta residents also fear their region could meet the same fate as the eastern, rebel-held half of the city of Aleppo, where a similar Russian-ordered pause in 2016 called on residents to evacuate the area and for gunmen to lay down their arms.

A full ground assault followed, finally bringing Aleppo under government control in December 2016.

The UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, insisted that a government-led assault on eastern Ghouta must not devolve into a “copycat” of the bloody siege on Aleppo.

Russian Major General Vladimir Zolotukhin said earlier that the militants who control the suburbs are shelling the route, which is manned by Syrian and Russian troops, and preventing evacuations.

State-run al-Ikhbariya TV reported that dozens of civilians had gathered on the edge of eastern Ghouta to leave, but were prevented by insurgents from reaching a crossing point into government-controlled areas.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said before the truce went into effect on Thursday, government shelling and air strikes on eastern Ghouta killed three people. The opposition’s Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, confirmed the casualty figure.

Elsewhere in Syria, a convoy of 28 trucks carrying aid entered the northern Kurdish enclave of Afrin, where Turkish troops have been on the offensive since January 20 against Syrian Kurdish fighters.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which carried out the operation with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, said the convoy carried material including 7,450 food baskets, enough for 50,000 people, in addition to mattresses, blankets and nappies.

Press Association

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