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Russia-ordered ‘pause’ in Syria fails to ease suffering

February 27, 2018

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gestures as he welcomes Jean-Yves Le Drian, French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs for the talks in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. Le Drian is in Moscow to discuss a humanitarian crisis in Syria where a Russia-ordered cease-fire came into effect earlier on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

BEIRUT (AP) — A five-hour truce ordered by Syria’s Russian allies to allow civilians to flee a besieged, opposition-held enclave near Damascus failed to result in aid deliveries or medical evacuations Tuesday, while deadly airstrikes and shelling continued in the region.

The U.N. and aid agencies criticized the unilateral arrangement for a daily “humanitarian pause” announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying it gave no guarantees of safety for tens of thousands of residents of eastern Ghouta, where they have been trapped for weeks under intense attack by the Syrian government.

Russia ordered the daily truce, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. local time, to begin Tuesday. A so-called corridor through a crossing point manned by the Syrian military was set up through which residents could leave, but no civilians used it and many said they feared harassment or arrest if they go into government areas after years of living in the rebel-controlled area.

“Anyone would face a number of dangers at any moment if they step into Damascus, either by arrest or by questioning family members. ... We in Ghouta we have no way out,” said Nemaat Mohsen, who lives in the town of Saqba in eastern Ghouta.

The enclave’s residents also fear their region would meet the same fate as the eastern, rebel-held half of the city of Aleppo, where a similar Russian-ordered pause in 2016 called on residents to evacuate the area and for gunmen to lay down their arms. A full ground assault followed, finally bringing Aleppo under the control of forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“People are still in shelters. They didn’t leave it because they have no confidence in the Russian and Syrian governments,” said Firas Abdullah, an opposition activist from Douma, one of the largest towns in eastern Ghouta about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the center of Damascus.

Video from the Wafideen crossing point, near Douma, showed preparations to allow civilians to leave, including small buses waiting at a parking area and soldiers milling about. The sound of occasional shelling could be heard, and some appeared to be outgoing rockets from government areas. The site has been used for years as a crossing point between the rebel-controlled sector and Damascus under an informal wartime agreement.

A journalist for Syria’s state-run Al-Ikhbariya TV said rebel-fired mortar shells had targeted the crossing, preventing civilians from leaving. Russian Gen. Viktor Pankov also told Russia’s state news agency Tass that residents couldn’t leave because of the rebel shelling. It was not possible to verify the reports.

Tass said Russian military police set up the humanitarian corridor with the Syrian troops, but there were no signs of anyone emerging.

The U.N. estimates that nearly 400,000 people live in dire conditions from the siege in eastern Ghouta, which has been under intense bombing by government forces for weeks.

The five-hour humanitarian truce ordered by Putin comes after a 30-day U.N. cease-fire unanimously approved Saturday by the Security Council failed to stop the carnage in eastern Ghouta, where more than 500 people have been killed since last week.

Residents and aid groups say such unilateral truces lack provisions for international monitoring and the consensus of all the parties involved.

Ingy Sedky, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the humanitarian corridors must be planned and implemented with the consent of all sides.

“This is essential so that people can leave safely, if they chose to do so,” she told The Associated Press from Damascus. “And for those who decide to leave, all measures should be taken to provide assistance, protection and shelter to them. And those who remain must be protected from any attacks.”

Regional director Robert Mardini said it was impossible to bring a humanitarian convoy in five hours.

The U.N. coordinator for humanitarian affairs also said conditions were not conducive for any aid deliveries.

“We have reports this morning that there is continued fighting in eastern Ghouta, so clearly the situation on the ground is not such that, for example, convoys can go in or medical evacuations can come out,” said Jens Laerke, speaking at a U.N. briefing in Geneva.

At least 34 people were killed Monday by airstrikes and shelling, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Airstrikes and shelling continued Tuesday, although at a lower scale, and at least three more people were killed, according to opposition activists. The state-run news agency SANA said 14 people, including children, were wounded by shells fired from eastern Ghouta into government-controlled areas in Damascus and its surroundings.

Civilians caught in the violence have mocked Putin’s five-hour truce, saying it provides only a short period of calm. Mohammad Alloush of the Army of Islam, the largest insurgent group in Ghouta, said the Russia-ordered pauses circumvent the U.N. resolution and is aimed at displacing civilians rather than protecting them.

“The only ones who will leave are the occupiers and Assad’s regime. We are the owners of the land,” Alloush told the AP.

“If Russia is concerned about civilians in eastern Ghouta, it should halt its planes immediately from bombing towns and residences and should stop the regime of Assad from its war of extermination,” he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov retorted that those remarks raise questions about the insurgents’ sincerity in honoring a U.N. cease-fire resolution. Speaking after talks with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, Lavrov said the U.N. resolution specifically calls on all combatants not to put any obstacles in the way of those seeking to leave besieged areas.

Russia, whose military campaign in support of Assad has turned the tide of the war in the Syrian government’s favor, accused the insurgents of preventing people from leaving, allegations the rebels deny.

Abu Ammar Dalwan, an Army of Islam member in Ghouta, said government shelling continued after the cease-fire, with helicopters seen overhead. He denied his group was shelling the Wafideen corridor.

Ghouta residents had decided to stay following years of violence, even though they had the option of leaving through tunnels that were operational until the recent assault began, Dalwan said.

He said that evacuating people under the threat of shelling amounted to a war crime.

“We want the international community to stop such a war crime,” he added.

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Associated Press writers Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, Jamey Keaten in Geneva, Albert Aji in Damascus and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed.

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