World

Fighting in Syria's Ghouta halts aid delivery, medical evacuations

Syrian government warplanes have struck the eastern Ghouta region while Damascus has accused rebels of shelling a safe route out, despite a Russian call for a five-hour truce that failed to halt one of the most devastating campaigns of the war.

'It is impossible to bring a humanitarian convoy in five hours,' says senior ICRC official

Syrian Civil Defence says more attacks occur in Ghouta province 1:01

Syrian government warplanes struck the eastern Ghouta region on Tuesday and Damascus accused rebels of shelling a safe route out, despite a Russian call for a five-hour truce that failed to halt one of the most devastating campaigns of the war.

Two residents in the region told Reuters that warplanes and helicopters were still launching strikes despite the Russian truce. Airstrikes were also reported by a war monitoring group, although a Syrian military source denied them.

The United Nations said ongoing combat had made it impossible to bring in aid or rescue the wounded.

"We have reports this morning there is continuous fighting in eastern Ghouta," UN humanitarian spokesperson Jens Laerke said. "Clearly the situation on the ground is not such that convoys can go in or medical evacuations can go out."

Syrians walk past destroyed buildings in Arbin in the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta on Sunday. (Abdulmonam Eassa/AFP/Getty Images)

Hundreds of people have died during 10 days of government bombardment of the eastern Ghouta, an area of towns and farms on the outskirts of Damascus. The assault has been among the most devastating air campaigns of the war.

Russia declared Tuesday's unilateral five-hour truce to open what it describes as a humanitarian corridor to evacuate wounded and let civilians escape from the besieged rebel-held enclave. On Tuesday, its military said it would guarantee the safety of any civilians who wished to leave.

Residents in several towns in the district described a brief pause in fighting, but said bombardment swiftly resumed. In the town of Hammouriyeh a man who identified himself by his first name Mahmoud told Reuters helicopters and warplanes were in the sky and conducting strikes.

Siraj Mahmoud, a spokesperson for the Civil Defence rescue service, which is funded by Western governments and operates in rebel areas, said artillery and airstrikes had hit the region.

Syrian state media and Russian officials accused the rebels of shelling the evacuation corridor to stop civilians leaving eastern Ghouta, which rebel groups denied.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said helicopters and warplanes had struck four towns and artillery shelling killed one person.

UN calls for ceasefire to be observed

A UN Security Council resolution passed Saturday called for a 30-day ceasefire across the entire country, but it did not specify when it should come into effect. It also excludes some militant groups, which Syria's allies say are among the rebel fighters in eastern Ghouta.

Laerke declined to comment on the Russian proposal for a five-hour truce, but called instead on all sides to obey the full 30-day ceasefire.

"It is a question of life and death — if ever there was a question of life and death — we need a 30-day cessation of hostilities in Syria as the Security Council demands," Laerke, spokesperson of the UN Office for the Coordination of  Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), told a Geneva briefing.

However, the UN resolution "was not an agreement by the warring parties," freelance journalist Rebecca Collard told CBC News from neighbouring Lebanon.

"What we have seen again and again in Syria is these resolutions passed by the United Nations in New York or agreements made in European cities simply fall apart on the ground in Syria," she said.

A rescue worker carries an injured girl in the besieged town of Hamouriyeh in eastern Ghouta on Feb. 21. (Bassam Khabieh/Reuters)

A rebel spokesperson said people in eastern Ghouta did not want to leave the area despite the bombardment, because they feared arrest, torture or conscription by the government.

Eastern Ghouta, where the UN says about 400,000 people live, is a major target for Assad, whose forces have clawed back numerous areas with military backing from Russia and Iran.

Rebels based in eastern Ghouta have intensified shelling of government-held Damascus. A medical official in the capital said on Monday 36 people had been killed in four days. Damascus and Moscow say the campaign in eastern Ghouta is needed to halt such shelling.

The Syrian war, approaching its eighth year, has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven half of the country's pre-war population of 23 million people from their homes.

Even before the latest bombardment of the besieged area began, there was growing international alarm over humanitarian conditions in the eastern Ghouta because of shortages of food, medicine and other essentials.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva said Monday it welcomed any measure allowing "those who wish to leave to do so, of their free will" and medical evacuations.

But a senior official with the aid group said Tuesday the proposed pause was too short.

"It is impossible to bring a humanitarian convoy in five hours," said ICRC Middle East director Robert Mardini. "We have a long experience of bringing aid across front lines in Syria, and we know that it may take up to one day to simply pass checkpoints, despite the previous agreement of all parties. Then you need to offload the goods."

With files from CBC News