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UN aid convoy suspends mission in Eastern Ghouta amid shelling

UN official says convoy delivered as much aid as possible in 'tragic situation' for civilians
Red Cross convoy heads for Eastern Ghouta on 5 March (Reuters)

An international aid convoy suspended its mission in Syria's rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta on Monday after the government pounded the region, killing dozens as it seized more ground.

The convoy started to cross into rebel-held territory, after it was stripped of medical supplies by the Syrian government.

At least 68 civilians were killed Monday, a monitor said, while the United Nations reported dozens of trucks carrying aid had reached the main town of Douma.

It was the first aid convoy to enter the Damascus suburb since the Syrian government launched a deadly assault two weeks ago, which has killed hundreds of civilians and injured many more.

A senior UN official accompanying the convoy said he was "not happy" to hear loud shelling near the crossing point into Eastern Ghouta despite an agreement that the aid would be delivered under peaceful conditions.

The convoy is not sufficient

- Ali al-Zatari, UN official

"We need to be assured that we will be able to deliver the humanitarian assistance under good conditions," Ali al-Zatari told the Reuters news agency at the crossing point.

The 46 aid trucks arrived after fresh air strikes hit the shrinking rebel-held zone and government troops rapidly advanced, leaving them in control of 40 percent of the region.

An AFP reporter in Douma said warplanes were flying overhead and explosions could be heard even as the aid was being unloaded.

The UN's refugee agency UNHCR said the aid convoy had been in the town of Douma for nearly nine hours.

But on Monday evening it cut short its mission and left the enclave, the UN said.

"We delivered as much as we could amidst shelling," UNHCR's Syria representative Sajjad Malik tweeted. "Civilians are caught in a tragic situation."

Linda Tom, spokesperson for the UN's humanitarian coordination office OCHA in Syria, told AFP fighting and air strikes had continued during the convoy's deployment, "including on Douma city while the convoy was offloading".

A World Health Organisation (WHO) official said government authorities had removed most medical material from UN vehicles, preventing surgical kits, insulin, dialysis equipment and other supplies from reaching the enclave of 400,000 people.

Zatari said the convoy had been scaled back from providing food for 70,000 people to providing for 27,500. The UN says Syria has agreed to let it bring the rest of the food for the full 70,000 in a second convoy in three days. "The convoy is not sufficient," Zatari said.

President Bashar al-Assad vowed on Sunday to continue a military push into the biggest remaining opposition stronghold near Damascus, saying the offensive did not contradict the five-hour ceasefires arranged each day by his main ally Russia.

A wider, full ceasefire backed by the UN Security Council has not come into effect during the campaign, which began with massive government air strikes two weeks ago and has continued in recent days with a ground assault.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said the death toll from the offensive had exceeded 700 people in two weeks of intense bombardment on the densely populated region of farmland and towns.

Pro-government forces have made sudden advances into Eastern Ghouta in recent days, capturing a third of the area, the Observatory said, and bringing them close to cutting it in two. Late on Sunday, a rebel official said factions in eastern Ghouta were working together to prepare to retake lost ground.

Eastern Ghouta Civil Defence attempted to put out a fire (Reuters)

The siege of Eastern Ghouta

Syrian state television broadcast on Monday morning from al-Shifouniyeh, one of the villages captured by the government, showing collapsed concrete buildings, rubble-strewn streets and bullet-pocked walls.

The area has been under siege by government forces since 2013, and the UN had feared that people inside were running out of food and medicine even before the major assault began two weeks ago. Only one convoy of aid has reached the area so far in 2018, on 14 February.

In comments broadcast by state television on Sunday, Assad dismissed Western statements about the humanitarian situation in eastern Ghouta as "a ridiculous lie".

Moscow made a similar case at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva: "The media atmosphere is saturated with lies," Russian diplomat Alexei Goltyaev said. "As a result we see debates and votes that are entirely removed from the actual situation on the ground."

Rebel shelling on Damascus has killed dozens of people during the last two weeks, state-run media has said.

Monday's convoy of trucks sent by the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent passed the last Syrian government checkpoint and began to drive into the rebel-held area, a Reuters witness said.

While falling short of a 30-day ceasefire demanded by the UN, Russia's announcement last week of daily humanitarian pauses in fighting had raised hopes of some aid deliveries and evacuations.

Damascus and Moscow have accused rebels of preventing civilians from leaving.