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Eastern Ghouta 'humanitarian pause' ended by fresh shelling

Monitors say bombing hit Douma and other towns, killing at least five people, as Russia claims rebels fired on evacuation route
Wounded Mohammed Malas, two, at a makeshift clinic in Eastern Ghouta on 22 February 2018 (AFP)

A five-hour truce in Syria's Eastern Ghouta was halted prematurely by fresh shelling on Tuesday, with both sides blaming each other for new attacks on the besieged enclave.

Sources in the Damascus suburb told Middle East Eye that the ceasefire lasted for only half an hour, when pro-government forces struck targets in Douma, the main town in Eastern Ghouta, and other towns including Harasta, Jisreen and Housh al-Dawahra.

At least five people, including women and children have been killed, sources said, while "many others" were injured.

The United Nations said ongoing combat had made it impossible to bring in aid or rescue the wounded.

"Fighting continues this morning. That is what our reports from Eastern Ghouta tell us," a spokesman for the UN humanitarian office, Jens Laerke, told reporters in Geneva, adding that it was premature to discuss any relief operations for desperate civilians given the persisting clashes.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights separately reported air strikes in two towns, while other sources on the ground reported strikes over the towns of Hasa report that the Syrian military denied.

The reported strikes came only hours into a Russian-imposed "humanitarian pause" in the Damascus suburbs, where more than 400 people have been killed in intense bombing over the last week, which was designed to allow civilians to leave the besieged area.

Humanitarian corridors 

Syrian families in Eastern Ghouta have been afraid to use the humanitarian corroridors which Russia had called on to allow a safe route for wounded to be evacuated and civilians to escape.

"No one is willing to attempt to use the corridors or leave Eastern Ghouta," a source in Douma told MEE. "How can they trust the very people who killed their families."

The Russian military was reported by the Tass news agency of accusing rebels in the enclave of firing mortar bombs on an evacuation route, meaning not one civilian had been able to leave.

The Kremlin went on to say that the future of Syria's ceasefire will depend on the actions of fighters in Eastern Ghouta.

"It will depend on how the terrorist groups behave, whether they will open fire, whether provocations from them will continue," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists when asked whether the current daily five-hour pause in fighting will increase.

Meanwhile, the main rebel groups in Syria's Eastern Ghouta said on Tuesday they would be willing to expel militant fighters from the enclave as soon as a UN ceasefire takes effect.

The main forces are militant groups - Jaish al-Islam, Faylaq al-Rahman and Ahrar al-Sham - who on Tuesday addressed a letter to the United Nations which was seen by AFP.

Moscow says the corridors are aimed at saving lives, but Assad’s opponents say they are a cynical ploy to snuff out the last pockets of rebellion.

In a statement on Tuesday, the Revolutionary Command Council in Damascus, a rebel umbrella organisation said the truce was “a green light for the regime and its allies to continue the genocide on unarmed civilians in besieged Ghouta”.

“This reveals the reality of its [Russian and Syrian-allied forces] intentions to carry out mass forced displacement under the pressure of a scorched earth policy and demographic change.”

'A Russian crime'

The Russian defence ministry said on Monday the measures, decided in agreement with Syrian forces, were intended to help civilians leave and to evacuate the sick and wounded.

But the spokesman for Failaq al-Rahman, one of the main rebel groups in the eastern Ghouta, accused Russia of presenting people with the choice of forced displacement or being killed in bombardment and siege, and called this a “Russian crime”.

Eastern Ghouta is the last major stronghold near Damascus for rebels battling to topple President Bashar al-Assad, who has driven fighters from numerous areas with military backing from Russia and Iran.

A UN Security Council resolution passed on Saturday had demanded a 30-day truce across Syria.

Fighting has escalated on several fronts in Syria this year. As Assad has pressed the offensive against eastern Ghouta, Turkey has launched an incursion against Kurdish fighters in the northwestern Afrin region.

Tensions have also flared between Iran and Israel, which is deeply alarmed by Tehran’s expanding influence in Syria. Syrian air defences shot down an Israeli F-16 earlier this month as it returned from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria.

The Syrian war, which is approaching its eighth year, has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven half of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million people from their homes.

Further reporting by agencies