World

Putin orders daily pauses in assault on rebel-held Ghouta amid reports of chemical attack

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu says President Vladimir Putin has ordered daily "humanitarian pauses" in Syria's rebel-held eastern Ghouta, where fighting has continued despite a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire.

'It is high time to stop this hell on Earth,' says UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres

A man helps a child at a hospital in the besieged town of Douma in eastern Ghouta on Sunday. (Bassam Khabieh/Reuters)

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu says President Vladimir Putin has ordered daily "humanitarian pauses" in Syria's rebel-held eastern Ghouta.

Shoigu said in a statement on Monday that the ceasefire will be arranged for the suburb of the capital Damascus between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. every day starting Tuesday. He also said Russia will help set an evacuation route for civilians in the area.

The announcement comes two days after the UN Security Council unanimously approved of a resolution demanding a 30-day ceasefire across Syria.

Eastern Ghouta has been under intensive bombing by government forces for weeks. 

A family of nine was killed in Syrian government bombardment of the rebel enclave overnight, as airstrikes and fighting have persisted despite a Security Council resolution, a war-monitor group said on Monday.

Local health authorities said late Sunday that several people had suffered symptoms consistent with chlorine gas exposure, killing one child, after an explosion.

"Eastern Ghouta cannot wait. It is high time to stop this hell on Earth," UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, calling for implementation of the 30-day ceasefire sought by the Security Council.

Clawing back control 

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, has steadily clawed back control of areas where his opponents rose up against his rule in 2011. Eastern Ghouta is the last major insurgent stronghold near Damascus, the seat of his power.

Survivors treated with oxygen; aerial bombing reportedly kills over two dozen, including children 0:37

The bombardment of eastern Ghouta over the past week has been one of the heaviest of Syria's seven-year war, killing at least 522 people in seven days, according to a toll compiled by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based war monitor.

It said two bodies had been pulled from the rubble of a home destroyed by an airstrike in the Ghouta town of Douma, with seven others from the same family dead underneath.

The UN Security Council, including Russia, approved the resolution demanding a 30-day truce on Saturday. The intensity of the bombardment has diminished since then but has still killed two dozen people, the observatory said.

Civilians rushed from their shelters to get food and return quickly since the warplanes are still in the sky and can hit at any moment.- Moayad Hafi, rescue worker

Rebel shelling has caused 36 deaths and a number of injuries in Damascus and nearby rural areas in the last four days, Zaher Hajjo, a government health official, told Reuters.

In eastern Ghouta, people were making use of the relative lull in the bombardment to find provisions, said Moayad Hafi, a rescue worker based there.

"There is less bombardment relative to recent days. Civilians rushed from their shelters to get food and return quickly since the warplanes are still in the sky and can hit at any moment," he told Reuters in a voice message.

Iran's military chief of staff said Sunday that pro-Damascus forces would press ahead with the offensive in the Damascus suburbs, saying the ceasefire did not cover parts of the Damascus suburbs "held by the terrorists." 

The main rebel factions in eastern Ghouta are Jaish al-Islam and Failaq al-Rahman. Tahrir al-Sham, an alliance of jihadist groups including the former al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front, also has a presence there.

Accusations of chemical use

Syrian state television reported that army units had directed strikes and advanced against militants near Harasta in eastern Ghouta. State news agency SANA also reported that the army had stopped a car bomb being driven into Damascus.

The Nusra Front has consistently been excluded from ceasefires in Syria, and the opposition says the government has used this as an excuse to keep up its bombardments.

The Syrian government has consistently denied using chemical weapons in the war, which will soon enter its eighth year. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and half of Syria's pre-war population have been forced from their homes.

An image made from video shows members of the Syrian Civil Defence group helping residents during airstrikes and shelling by Syrian government forces in Ghouta on Saturday. (Syrian Civil Defence via Associated Press)

Russia, which backs the Assad government, accused rebels of preparing to use toxic agents in eastern Ghouta so they could later accuse Damascus of employing chemical weapons.

In recent weeks, the United States has accused Syria of repeatedly using chlorine gas as a weapon. Rebel-held areas of the Ghouta region were hit in a major chemical attack in 2013.

Last year, a joint inquiry by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons found the Syrian government was responsible for an April 4, 2017, attack using the banned nerve agent sarin in the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, killing dozens.

The inquiry had previously found that Syrian government forces were responsible for three chlorine gas attacks in 2014 and 2015, and that ISIS militants had used mustard gas.

Elsewhere in Syria, an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria killed 25 people — more than half of them women and children — in the militant group's last enclave on the Euphrates River in Syria, the observatory said on Monday.

A coalition spokesperson said it would make a civilian casualty assessment.

A man walks down a damaged street in Douma on Sunday. (Bassam Khabieh/Reuters)

With files from The Associated Press