Russia orders five-hour daily truce in Ghouta; 22 killed in fresh strikes
Russia called a daily “humanitarian pause” in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta, bowing to international pressure to halt the carnage in the rebel-held enclave where fresh strikes claimed more civilian lives on Monday.
A UN Security Council resolution for a 30-day truce had remained a dead letter since it was passed on Saturday, and Moscow, the Syrian regime’s main backer, ended up setting its own terms to stem one of the worst episodes of bloodletting in Syria’s seven-year-old conflict.
The United Nations, France and Germany had made pressing appeals for Russian President Vladimir Putin to demand its Damascus ally enforce a ceasefire, including in Eastern Ghouta where more than 500 civilians were killed last week.
He eventually agreed to a five-hour daily window that would allow residents of the battered enclave east of the capital to come out of the underground shelters they have been cowering in.
“On the instructions of the Russian president, with the goal of avoiding civilian casualties in Eastern Ghouta, from Feb 27 … from 9:00 to 14:00 there will be a humanitarian pause,” Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said.
According to a statement, he said there should be similar pauses in the southern Al-Tanf border region and Rukban, near the Jordanian border.
Shoigu said “humanitarian corridors” would be opened to allow civilians to leave, adding that their locations would soon be divulged.
UN chief Antonio Guterres had expressed frustration with the lack of results the resolution yielded and stressed Monday in Geneva: “Eastern Ghouta cannot wait. It is high time to stop this hell on earth.”
The intensity of the bombardment on Eastern Ghouta had eased somewhat over the weekend but deadly strikes and shelling never stopped.
Among the latest victims were nine members of the same family killed when their home in Douma, the main town in the enclave, collapsed on their heads on Monday.
“Nine civilians from the same family were killed in regime air strikes in Douma, after midnight,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring organisation. “Some of the bodies are still stuck in the rubble,” he said.
Trapped in rubble
In Douma, there was heavy bombardment overnight, impeding rescuers in their work. A total of 22 civilians, including seven children, were killed on Monday, the Observatory said.
The regime intensified its air campaign against Eastern Ghouta, which has been outside government control since 2012, at the beginning of the month.
On Feb 18, the Syrian government further turned up the heat on the territory controlled by militant groups.
More than 550 civilians, almost a quarter of them children, have since been killed and extensive destruction wrought on the enclave’s towns.
The hospitals and clinics that were not destroyed by strikes have struggled to process the more than 2,000 people wounded over the same period.
The UN said in a statement Monday that a staggering 76 per cent of private housing in Eastern Ghouta was damaged.
Residents trapped in the wreckage of their own homes have bled to death as rescuers were targeted even as they tried to save lives.
Much of the nearly 400,000-strong population of Eastern Ghouta has moved underground, with families pitching tents in basements and venturing out only to assess damage to their property and buy food.
On Sunday, a child died and 13 others suffered breathing difficulties and showed symptoms consistent with a chlorine attack after a regime air raid struck the town of Al-Shifuniyah, the Observatory and a medic said.
Russia dismissed reports of a chemical attack as “bogus stories”.
The regime has reinforced its deployment around the enclave over the past month, raising fears of a ground offensive that aid groups have warned could cause even worse suffering.