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)
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