Deaths mounts in Syria as UN weighs cease-fire resolution
By BASSEM MROUE and EDITH M. LEDERER
Feb. 23, 2018
BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government warplanes carried out a sixth day of airstrikes Friday in the rebel-held suburbs east of Damascus, killing 32 people, activists said, as the death toll from a week of bombardment soared over 400.
At the United Nations, a vote on a Security Council resolution demanding a 30-day humanitarian cease-fire across Syria was delayed until Saturday to try to close a gap over the timing of a halt to fighting.
The new bombings came a day after Syrian army helicopters dropped leaflets over the rebel-controlled areas of eastern Ghouta, urging residents of those suburbs to leave for their own safety and calling on opposition fighters to surrender because they were surrounded by government troops.
Opposition activists reported airstrikes and artillery shelling on a string of towns on the edge of Damascus or eastern Ghouta.
At least 32 people were killed in raids on areas including Hammouriyeh, Zamalka, Douma and al-Marj, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that monitors the civil war through a network of activists in Syria.
The Ghouta Media Center, an activist collective, also reported 32 killed, saying the victims included 13 people in the Damascus suburb of Douma, five in Ein Tarma and five in Shiefouniyeh.
Syrian state TV reported that insurgents fired 70 shells on Damascus, killing one person and wounding 60 others. It said one of the shells hit a hospital, damaging its intensive care unit as well as cars parked nearby.
The opposition's Syrian Civil Defense rescue group reported new airstrikes in Douma, Arbeen and other towns east of Damascus.
At the White House, U.S. President Donald Trump blamed Russia, Iran and the Syrian government for the recent violence in Syria, calling it a "humanitarian disgrace." His comments came at a joint news conference with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura called again for an urgent cease-fire to relieve the "appalling suffering" of civilians in eastern Ghouta by stopping the bombing there and the "indiscriminate" shelling of Damascus. He said the cease-fire must be followed by an "immediate, unhindered humanitarian access to eastern Ghouta and evacuation of sick and injured."
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also had urged an immediate suspension of "all war activities" in eastern Ghouta, saying 400,000 people are living "in hell on Earth."
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said "unhindered humanitarian access and the protection of civilians is a moral duty and a matter of urgency."
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia has called an immediate cease-fire unrealistic and proposed an amendment to delay it. But the Russian amendment was rejected by Sweden and Kuwait, sponsors of the proposed Security Council resolution that demands a 30-day cease-fire to start 72 hours after the measure's adoption.
Kuwait's U.N. Ambassador Mansour Al-Otaiba, the current council president, and Sweden's U.N. Ambassador Olof Skoog told reporters Friday evening after six hours of negotiations that members were very close to agreement on a text — but there was still a gap.
"We all agree there needs to be a cease-fire and it has to be urgent, immediately," Sweden's U.N. Ambassador Olof Skoog told reporters. "There are still some discussions on exactly how to define that. So that's what we're working on."
Skoog said he was "extremely frustrated" that the council was unable to adopt the resolution on Thursday or Friday because the situation on the ground is dire.
Al-Otaiba said the council will meet Saturday at noon EST (1700 GMT) and there will be a vote.
The draft resolution demands that as soon as the cease-fire takes effect, all parties should allow humanitarian convoys and medical evacuations in areas requested by the U.N. It states that 5.6 million people in 1,244 communities are in "acute need," including 2.9 million in hard-to-reach and besieged locations.
It would authorize one exemption from the cease-fire: attacks directed at extremists from the Islamic State group and all al-Qaida affiliates, including the Nusra Front, would be allowed to continue.
The Syrian government and its Russian allies say they are pursuing Islamic extremists they call "terrorists" — and U.S.-backed forces are also going after IS and al-Qaida militants.
Skoog stressed earlier that the resolution "is about saving lives."
"U.N. convoys and evacuation teams are ready to go," he said. "It's time for the council to come together and shoulder its responsibility to urgently avert a situation that is beyond words in its desperation."
The final draft does include several other Russian proposals.
It stresses the need for "guarantees" from countries with influence on government and opposition forces to support and create conditions for a lasting cease-fire. The sponsors also added language expressing "outrage" at the shelling of Damascus, including on diplomatic premises, which is a proposal Russia wanted.
Russia has been a main backer for Syrian President Bashar Assad and has joined the battle on his side since 2015, tipping the balance of power in his favor. Opposition activists say Russian warplanes are taking part in the bombing of eastern Ghouta.
A main Syrian opposition group said the international community should prevent Russia from voting on the Security Council resolution, saying Moscow is part of the conflict.
Salwa Aksoy, vice president of the Syrian National Coalition, told reporters in Turkey that according to the U.N. Charter, countries that are part of a conflict have no right to vote on draft resolutions.
Aksoy said that "what is happening in Ghouta is a war of annihilation and crimes against humanity." She blamed Assad's government as well as Russia and Iran for the violence.
Also on Friday, Human Rights Watch criticized the way Turkey is conducting its offensive in northern Syria, saying it has failed to take the necessary precautions to avoid civilian casualties. The New York-based group cited three attacks in the Afrin region in late January that it says killed 26 civilians, including 17 children. It urged Turkey to thoroughly investigate these strikes and make the findings public.
Turkey launched an air and ground offensive in the Kurdish-controlled region Jan. 20, saying it aims to clear Afrin of the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG, which Turkey considers to be an offshoot of its own outlawed Kurdish rebels fighting inside its borders.
According to several estimates, around 120 civilians have been killed so far in the offensive. Turkey denies hitting civilians.
The YPG on Friday accused Turkey of bombing a convoy of civilians that was crossing into Afrin to protest the offensive, resulting in multiple casualties who were taken to hospitals.
Syrian state TV said Thursday night an aid convoy heading toward Afrin has been targeted by Turkish artillery, inflicting casualties.
Turkey's military said Friday it hit a convoy of weapons and ammunition in the countryside of a Kurdish-held enclave in northern Syria.
The army said in a statement that Turkish artillery hit the 30- to 40-vehicle convoy of the YPG in southeastern Afrin. Aerial video accompanying the statement showed the alleged strike.
Lederer reported from the United Nations. Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut and Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed.