Monday 19 February 2018

Aleppo holds out for aid as ceasefire is stalled

A Syrian man carries a wounded child in the rubble of buildings following a barrel bomb attack on the Bab al-Nairab neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Thursday. Photo: Ameer Alhalbiameer/Getty
A Syrian man carries a wounded child in the rubble of buildings following a barrel bomb attack on the Bab al-Nairab neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Thursday. Photo: Ameer Alhalbiameer/Getty

Raf Sanchez

Russia has agreed to a 48-hour humanitarian ceasefire in the divided Syrian city of Aleppo to allow aid deliveries, but security guarantees are awaited from other parties on the ground, UN officials said.

The UN has pushed for a weekly 48-hour pause in fighting in Aleppo to alleviate suffering for about two million people, but major powers back opposing sides in Syria's five-year-old civil war, complicating its implementation.

"We have ... agreement now from the Russian Federation for the 48-hour pause, we're waiting (for) it from the other actors on the ground. That has taken more time frankly than I thought was needed," Jan Egeland, who chairs the UN humanitarian task force, told reporters yesterday.

Mr Egeland's boss, UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, echoed his comments, saying Russia was on board but they were waiting for others parties to agree: "... we are ready, trucks are ready and they can leave any time we get that message."

Russia is the main external supporter of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Rebel groups opposing Assad are supported by Western and Gulf powers.

The White House has said it supported UN efforts to bring all sides together to deliver humanitarian relief to Aleppo and would welcome Russia's constructive engagement.

The US State Department said while Washington backed the 48-hour Aleppo ceasefire, it was focused on achieving a broader country-wide cessation of hostilities.

"If the UN says they need 48 hours, of course we support the UN but ... our focus is on a nationwide sustainable cessation of hostilities," said State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau.

She said that would let all Syrians have access to aid and provide a basis for a political transition.

Separately yesterday, the rebel-held city of Daraya surrendered to the Syrian regime after four long years of siege, bombardment and starvation.

The surrender is a victory for Assad, as Daraya is a suburb close to central Damascus and one of the first areas to rise up against his regime.

Under the terms of surrender, the 8,000 civilians who stayed in the city will be moved to regime areas while several hundred rebel fighters will be given passage to go to Idlib, an opposition-held city in the north.

The rebels will be allowed to carry their personal firearms with them but must leave behind whatever heavy weaponry they still have.

Residents of the city said they were heartbroken that their years of resistance had ended in surrender.

"It's our land. We paid for it with our blood. My heart is shattered into pieces," said Ahmad, a 23-year-old man who has not seen his girlfriend or family members since the regime siege began in 2012.

"I do not know what will happen to us, whether I will be killed or allowed to live. For so long Daraya is all I have known, and I am feeling lost and distraught at having to leave."

Ahmad expects to be transferred to western Ghouta, another Damascus suburb where regime forces used chemical gas to kill several hundred people in 2013.

Some opponents of the regime tweeted pictures of the rebel commanders in Daraya, accusing them of betraying their people by agreeing to give up the town.

The regime's victory in Daraya has more than just symbolic value. The end of the siege will also free up regime troops to fight rebel forces elsewhere near Damascus.

It is not clear how quickly the evacuation will take place but regime supporters posted photos purporting to show Assad loyalists entering the battered remnants of city.

The regime siege of Daraya began in late 2012 and only a single food convoy has been able to enter the city in the last four years - a Red Crescent delivery that arrived in June.

Regime forces have encircled the city for years but stepped up their bombardment in the last few months, including dropping napalm on residents last week. The city's only hospital was also bombed in August.

Facing starvation and ever increasing attacks from the air by both Assad's forces and their Russian allies, rebel commanders and the city's civilian council decided to give in. (Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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