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No deal at UN over Syria ceasefire as Russian veto looms

Voting on ceasefire resolution may take place on Friday, amid fierce air campaign against enclave
Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Jaafari speaks with Chinese counterpart Ma Zhaoxu on Thursday (Reuters)

After two weeks of negotiations, Russia on Thursday told the UN Security Council that there was still no agreement on a 30-day ceasefire in Syria, dimming hopes of international action to halt the carnage in Eastern Ghouta.

Moscow has repeatedly used its veto power at the Security Council to block measures on the Syrian war that it opposes, including condemnations of the government in Damascus. 

During a council meeting called by Russia, Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia presented a new raft of amendments to a draft resolution that would allow deliveries of humanitarian aid and medical evacuations during the pause.

Negotiations on the draft presented by Sweden and Kuwait, which started on 9 February, have dragged on as hundreds of Syrians have died in a fierce government air campaign against the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta.

Nebenzia told the council that Sweden and Kuwait had requested a vote on the draft resolution even though they are "fully aware there is no agreement on it".

The Security Council needs to reach a "feasible" agreement on a ceasefire and not take a decision that would be "severed from reality," said Nebenzia.

UN diplomats resumed talks in a last-ditch bid to avoid a Russian veto, and a council vote was now being considered for Friday.

"We are trying to find a way forward," Swedish Ambassador Olof Skoog said after the meeting, adding that he was "leaning towards a vote" on Friday.

The United States, France and Britain called for a quick vote to address the acute crisis on the ground.

US representative Kelley Currie said Washington was ready to vote for a ceasefire "right here and right now".

During her testimony, Currie quoted a number of Syrians, including a doctor who spoke to Middle East Eye on Wednesday, about the ongoing humanitarian crisis unfolding in the rebel-held enclave.

"The assault from the regime is relentless, and the suffering is overwhelming," Currie said.

Outside UN headquarters in New York, aid groups put up billboards calling on the Security Council to act (AFP)
Dr Ataya Malik told MEE on Wednesday that wounded people are dying before reaching hospitals because of a lack of ambulances.  

"The hospitals have been overflowing with blood. We are doing what we can to help, but the situation is becoming unbearable," he said, speaking from Eastern Ghouta.

Outside the UN headquarters in New York, a coalition of aid groups put up three billboards, inspired by the film "Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri" that read: "500,000 dead in Syria. And still no action? How come Security Council?"

More than 400 people have been killed in the five-day assault by the government on Eastern Ghouta, where 400,000 Syrians are living in "hell on earth" according to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

In his address to the council, Nebenzia cited concerns over enforcing the ceasefire and questioned the feasibility of quickly launching a major aid operation to reach civilians and lift sieges.

He accused supporters of the ceasefire of seeking to create "a scandal in order to step up pressure on the Syrian government and taint the Russian government".

The draft resolution would pave the way for the truce to go into effect 72 hours after the adoption of the measure and for aid deliveries and medical evacuations to begin 48 hours after that.

Doctors struggle to cope in Eastern Ghouta
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It demands the immediate lifting of all sieges, including in Eastern Ghouta, Yarmouk, Foua and Kefraya, and orders all sides to "cease depriving civilians of food and medicine indispensable to their survival".

In a concession to Russia, the draft was amended during tough negotiations last week to specify that the ceasefire does not apply to the Islamic State (IS) group or al-Qaeda.

That would allow the Syrian government offensive to continue against al-Qaeda-linked militants in Idlib, the last province in Syria outside the control of Damascus.

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