Ghouta truce strug­gles to hold

Lo­cals con­demn ‘ex­ter­mi­na­tion cam­paign’ launched by As­sad


DOUMA: A hu­man­i­tar­ian “pause” an­nounced by Rus­sia in Syria’s deadly bom­bard­ment of Eastern Ghouta strug­gled to take hold Tues­day, with fresh vi­o­lence erupt­ing and no sign of aid de­liv­er­ies or res­i­dents leav­ing the be­sieged en­clave.

Nine days af­ter Rus­sian-backed regime forces in­ten­si­fied their cam­paign against the op­po­si­tion­held en­clave, the deal of­fered some respite to civil­ians who had been cow­er­ing in their base­ments.

But the first day of a five-hour daily “pause” that was an­nounced by Rus­sia and kicked off at 9 a.m. (0700 GMT) was marred by fresh vi­o­lence that saw at least six civil­ians killed.

Moscow’s plan falls short of a broader 30-day cease-fire, which was voted by the UN but has yet to take ef­fect, and has in­spired lit­tle trust from among the be­sieged en­clave’s 400,000 res­i­dents.

The regime de­ployed buses at Al-Wafideen check­point to trans­port res­i­dents want­ing to use a hu­man­i­tar­ian cor­ri­dor to flee what UN chief An­to­nio Guter­res last called “hell on earth.”

But no civil­ians were seen ven­tur­ing to­ward the regime forces guard­ing the check­point, where large por­traits of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad and Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin could be seen side-by-side.

State news agency SANA ac­cused armed groups in Eastern Ghouta of fir­ing sev­eral rock­ets on the path of the cor­ri­dor.

It sin­gled out the for­mer Al-Qaeda af­fil­i­ate present in some parts of the en­clave, ac­cus­ing it of block­ing civil­ians “to use them as hu­man shields.”

Some res­i­dents left the base­ments they had been cow­er­ing in for days to check on their prop­erty and buy food.

But many in the en­clave, which lies on the eastern out­skirts of the Syr­ian cap­i­tal, ap­peared dis­trust­ful of a “pause” an­nounced by Da­m­as­cus’s main ally.

“This Rus­sian truce is a farce. Rus­sia is killing us and bomb­ing us every day,” said Samer Al-Buaid­hani, a 25-year-old from Douma, Eastern Ghouta’s main hub.

“I don’t be­lieve it’s safe for me or my fam­ily to leave by this sys­tem,” he told AFP.

In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross spokes­woman Iolanda Jaque­met told AFP that any evac­u­a­tion needed deeper co­or­di­na­tion.

“Un­der in­ter­na­tional hu­man­i­tar­ian law, hu­man­i­tar­ian cor­ri­dors are things which need to be well planned and must be im­ple­mented with the con­sent of par­ties on all sides, not only with one side,” she said.

More than 550 civil­ians, al­most a quar­ter of them chil­dren, have been killed since Feb. 18 in the Syr­ian and Rus­sian bom­bard­ment of Eastern Ghouta, mak­ing it one of the blood­i­est episodes of the coun­try’s seven-year-old con­flict.

Vi­o­lence lev­els were sig­nif­i­cantly lower on Tues­day as the “hu­man­i­tar­ian pause” kicked in but six civil­ians were killed by regime bom­bard­ment, ac­cord­ing to the Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights mon­i­tor­ing group.

In Ham­muriyeh, an­other town in the sprawl­ing semi-ru­ral en­clave, Mo­hammed Ab­dul­lah said the pause left civil­ians with a choice be­tween two evils.

“The truce is not in the peo­ple’s in­ter­est, we have two op­tions: death or dis­place­ment,” said the 30-year-old.

“The cam­paign we were tar­geted with was an ex­ter­mi­na­tion cam­paign, not a sim­ple bom­bard­ment. What we want is a full and per­ma­nent cease­fire for all of Ghouta,” he said.

That sen­ti­ment was echoed by the dom­i­nant op­po­si­tion groups in Eastern Ghouta, who sent a let­ter to the UN stat­ing their will­ing­ness to ex­pel ji­hadists as soon as a full cease-fire takes ef­fect.

The Rus­sian-backed daily five­hour “pause” falls short of a broader month-long cease-fire voted by the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil on Satur­day.

The main op­po­si­tion groups in Eastern Ghouta — Jaish Al-Is­lam, Fay­laq Al-Rah­man and Ahrar Al-Sham — de­clared their “com­plete com­mit­ment to de­port” rad­i­cal fight­ers.

Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, a group made up mostly of fight­ers from Al-Qaeda’s ex-af­fil­i­ate Al-Nusra Front, is present in some parts of the en­clave.

The let­ter said such an evac­u­a­tion, which has been dis­cussed pre­vi­ously but never yielded any re­sult, would take 15 days and start when a UN truce takes ef­fect.

Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lavrov re­acted cau­tiously to the state­ment and said af­ter meet­ing French coun­ter­part Jean-Yves Le Drian that the ball was in the op­po­si­tion groups’ court.

“We shall see in prac­tice whether the pleas by the three il­le­gal armed groups... to carry out the UNSC res­o­lu­tion cor­re­spond with their in­ten­tions,” he said.

The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment lost con­trol of Eastern Ghouta in 2012 and has be­sieged it al­most ever since.

The sce­nario put in place by the regime and its Rus­sian ally was rem­i­nis­cent of the deal that ended the bat­tle of Aleppo in 2016.

Few civil­ians back then ini­tially used the Aleppo cor­ri­dors uni­lat­er­ally an­nounced by Rus­sia.

Some started flee­ing af­ter re­newed bom­bard­ment and the rest even­tu­ally evac­u­ated when a mul­ti­lat­eral deal was reached with Tur­key.

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