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Saturday 18 August 2018

‘No way out’ for civilians as ‘humanitarian pause’ fails in Ghouta

The UN estimates that nearly 400,000 people live in dire conditions from the siege in eastern Ghouta, which has been under intense bombing for weeks.

Two Syrian children wounded during air strikes and shelling (Ghouta Media Center via AP)
Two Syrian children wounded during air strikes and shelling (Ghouta Media Center via AP)

By Sarah El Deeb and Zeina Karam, Associated Press

A five-hour truce ordered by Russia to allow civilians to flee a besieged, opposition-held enclave near Syria’s capital Damascus has failed to result in aid deliveries or medical evacuations.

The UN and aid agencies criticised the unilateral arrangement for a daily “humanitarian pause” announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying it gave no guarantees of safety for tens of thousands of residents of eastern Ghouta.

Anyone would face a number of dangers at any moment if they step into Damascus, either by arrest or by questioning family members. We in Ghouta we have no way out

Russia ordered the daily truce, from 9am to 2pm local time, to begin on Tuesday. A so-called corridor through a crossing point manned by the Syrian military was set up through which residents could leave, but no civilians used it and many said they feared harassment or arrest if they go into government areas after years of living in the rebel-controlled area.

“Anyone would face a number of dangers at any moment if they step into Damascus, either by arrest or by questioning family members. We in Ghouta we have no way out,” said Nemaat Mohsen, who lives in the town of Saqba in eastern Ghouta.

The enclave’s residents also fear their region would 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 the control of forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“People are still in shelters. They didn’t leave it because they have no confidence in the Russian and Syrian governments,” said Firas Abdullah, an opposition activist from Douma, one of the largest towns in eastern Ghouta about 12 miles from the centre of Damascus.

Video from the Wafideen crossing point, near Douma, showed preparations to allow civilians to leave, including small buses waiting at a parking area and soldiers patrolling.

The sound of occasional shelling could be heard, and some appeared to be outgoing rockets from government areas. The site has been used for years as a crossing point between the rebel-controlled sector and Damascus under an informal wartime agreement.

The UN estimates that nearly 400,000 people live in dire conditions from the siege in eastern Ghouta, which has been under intense bombing by government forces for weeks.

The five-hour humanitarian truce ordered by Mr Putin comes after a 30-day UN ceasefire unanimously approved on Saturday by the Security Council failed to stop the carnage in eastern Ghouta, where more than 500 people have been killed since last week.

Residents and aid groups say such unilateral truces lack provisions for international monitoring and the consensus of all the parties involved.

Ingy Sedky, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the humanitarian corridors must be planned and implemented with the consent of all sides.

“This is essential so that people can leave safely, if they chose to do so,” she told The Associated Press from Damascus. “And for those who decide to leave, all measures should be taken to provide assistance, protection and shelter to them. And those who remain must be protected from any attacks.”

Press Association

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