Hu­man­i­tar­ian ‘catas­tro­phe’

Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition) - - WORLD -

PARIS: France urged Rus­sia to make Syria’s gov­ern­ment ease a wors­en­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis in two rebel-held ar­eas as more air strikes pounded them on Fri­day, adding to the death toll from one of the dead­li­est weeks of the war.

Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad’s army, which has seized a clear ad­van­tage in the war with Rus­sian and Ira­nian help, is bom­bard­ing two of the last key rebel ar­eas of Syria – East­ern Ghouta near Da­m­as­cus and Idlib in the north-west, near the Turk­ish bor­der.

Air strikes killed six peo­ple in East­ern Ghouta, a pocket of towns and farm­land east of Da­m­as­cus where the death toll has climbed to more than 230 in the last four days – the area’s dead­li­est week since 2015, ac­cord­ing to the Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights mon­i­tor­ing group.

Air strikes killed an­other seven peo­ple in a vil­lage in Idlib.

The multi-sided con­flict is rag­ing on other fronts too, with Turkey wag­ing a big of­fen­sive in the Afrin re­gion of north-west­ern Syria, where Ankara is tar­get­ing Kur­dish forces it says are a threat to its se­cu­rity. Turkey re­sumed its air strikes against Afrin overnight.

Diplo­macy is mak­ing no progress towards end­ing a war now ap­proach­ing its eighth year, hav­ing killed hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple and forced half the pre-war Syr­ian pop­u­la­tion of 23 mil­lion from their homes, with mil­lions forced out as refugees.

In a tele­phone call, French pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron pressed Rus­sia’s Vladimir Putin to do all he could to en­sure Da­m­as­cus puts an end to the hu­man­i­tar­ian emer­gency in East­ern Ghouta and Idlib, the El­y­see Palace said.

Macron also told Putin it was imperative that peace talks made progress and voiced his con­cern at signs that chlo­rine bombs have been used against civil­ians re­cently. Da­m­as­cus has con­sis­tently de­nied us­ing chem­i­cal weapons.

The Krem­lin said Putin and Macron dis­cussed the Syr­ian peace process in the phone call.

The UN has been sound­ing the alarm about the es­ca­lat­ing level of vi­o­lence and called on Tues­day for a hu­man­i­tar­ian truce of at least one month to al­low for aid de­liv­er­ies and evac­u­a­tions of the wounded.

But Rus­sia, As­sad’s most pow­er­ful ally, said on Thurs­day a cease­fire was un­re­al­is­tic and that mil­i­tants were to blame for the blood­shed.

In east­ern Ghouta, the last ma­jor rebel en­clave near Da­m­as­cus, res­i­dents de­scribed one of the most ex­ten­sive bomb­ing cam­paigns they have lived through in the war with mul­ti­ple towns hit si­mul­ta­ne­ously and peo­ple driven into shel­ters for days.

“My brother was hit yes­ter­day in an air strike and we had to am­pu­tate his leg. Thank God it was only this,” said an East­ern Ghouta res­i­dent on Fri­day. “He was hit by shrap­nel while sit­ting in his home,” said the res­i­dent, who iden­ti­fied him­self as Ad­nan, de­clin­ing to give his full name.

Da­m­as­cus has re­peat­edly said it tar­gets only mil­i­tants. The state news agency Sana said in­sur­gent shelling of Da­m­as­cus wounded two peo­ple and the army re­sponded by hit­ting mil­i­tant po­si­tions in Ghouta.

“The peo­ple here have col­lapsed, peo­ple are seen talk­ing to them­selves in the streets. They don’t know where to go,” said Si­raj Mah­moud, a spokesman with the Civil De­fence res­cue ser­vice in the rebel area, whose pop­u­la­tion is about 350 000. “We are liv­ing a catas­tro­phe.”

The Save the Chil­dren char­ity said chil­dren were be­ing “starved, bombed and trapped”. Cit­ing its part­ners on the ground, it said 45 schools in East­ern Ghouta were at­tacked since the start of the year, with 11 de­stroyed.

UN spokesper­son Rhéal Leblanc told a UN brief­ing in Geneva: “Th­ese in­tense air strikes have been ex­tremely pre­oc­cu­py­ing and es­pe­cially they’ve hit even men­tal health cen­tres.”

The Turk­ish army, which launched an air and ground of­fen­sive in the Afrin re­gion on Jan­u­ary 20, said it had con­ducted fur­ther air strikes on Kur­dish fight­ers there.

Author­i­ties in Afrin ac­cused Turkey of creat­ing a “hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis” by killing at least 160 peo­ple and dis­plac­ing tens of thou­sands. Ankara has de­nied such charges.

Turk­ish pres­i­dent Tayyip Er­do­gan and Putin, his Rus­sian coun­ter­part, spoke on Thurs­day and agreed to strengthen mil­i­tary and se­cu­rity ser­vice co-or­di­na­tion in Syria, the Krem­lin said. – Reuters/African News Agency (ANA)

Cross-coun­try skier Char­lotte Kalla, 30, of Swe­den. cel­e­brates win­ning the first gold medal of the Pyeongchang Olympics – the 7.5km + 7.5km skiathlon – at the Alpen­sia Cross Coun­try Cen­tre.

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