More civilians killed as assault on rebel-held Eastern Ghouta escalates
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Syrian and Russian forces stepped up their assault on the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta enclave Wednesday as the number of civilian deaths continued to rise, prompting international calls for an end to the siege.
In a major twist for Syria's complex seven-year war, Damascus also sent pro-regime fighters to the northern Afrin region, where they came under fire by Turkish forces attacking the Kurdish-controlled enclave.
On the outskirts of Damascus, air strikes, rockets and artillery fire have battered the Eastern Ghouta enclave in apparent preparation for a government ground assault.
At least 346 civilians were killed and 878 injured, mostly from air strikes on residential areas, since the Syrian government and its allies escalated its offensive against the rebel-held enclave on February 4, according to the office of UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein.
There were also 15 deaths and 51 injuries reported among civilians in and around Damascus, the result of a dramatic escalation of rebel fire on government areas.
Many of the violations may amount to war crimes, said Zeid.
Women and children, trapped for five years of siege, were now in a state of panic, without food, sanitation, or safe havens after air strikes destroyed their homes, he added.
Zeid said repeated strikes on medical facilities, which are meant to be protected by international law, meant people with extreme injuries now faced a slow and painful death.
The UN has been pleading with the Syrian government for months to arrange the evacuation of hundreds of seriously ill patients among the population of almost 400,000.
Russia calls for UN meeting on Eastern Ghouta
Amid mounting international pressure for a ceasefire to enable humanitarian aid into the besieged area, French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday said France “vigorously” condemned the hostilities in Eastern Ghouta and called for the “immediate adoption” of a UN resolution on the issue.
"The (Syrian) regime and some of its allies have decided to target civilian populations and presumably some of its opponents," said Macron.
Responding to the pressure, Russia called for a UN Security Council meeting to be held on Thursday on the violence in Eastern Ghouta.
Russian Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia on Wednesday told the council that the open meeting would allow all sides to "present their vision, their understanding of the situation and come up with ways of getting out of this situation".
Key hospital hit twice
The UN said six hospitals had been hit in the region in the past 48 hours, in addition to a key hospital in Arbin.
"The Arbin hospital was hit twice today and is now out of service," said Moussa Naffa, country director in Jordan for the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), which supported the clinic.
The Observatory blamed Russian warplanes, saying Moscow carried out its first strikes in three months on Eastern Ghouta.
The rebel-held region is nominally included in a "de-escalation" deal meant to tamp down violence, but President Bashar al-Assad is apparently preparing troops for an imminent ground assault to retake it.
The United States said it was "deeply concerned" about the escalating attacks on the enclave.
"The cessation of violence must begin now," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, criticising what she called the "siege and starve tactics" of the Assad regime.
Hours before the Arbin hospital was bombed, a doctor there spoke of the casualties they had been treating.
"February 19 was the one of the worst days that we've ever had in the history of this crisis," Abu al-Yasar told AFP.
He described treating a one-year-old with blue skin and a faint pulse, rescued from under the rubble.
"I opened his mouth to put in a breathing tube and I found it packed with dirt," said Abu al-Yasar.
He pulled out the dirt as fast as possible, put in the breathing tube and managed to save the baby.
"This is just one story from among hundreds of wounded."
The bloodshed prompted the UN children's agency UNICEF to issue a largely blank statement saying: "We no longer have the words to describe children's suffering."
Syria's conflict erupted in 2011 with protests against Assad, but the ensuing war has carved the country into various zones of control among rebels, jihadists, the regime, and Kurds.
Turkey has been waging an air and ground offensive against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia in the Afrin enclave for the past month but on Tuesday the stakes were ratcheted up.
Hundreds of Syrian pro-government forces entered the region for the first time since 2012 to face off against Turkey alongside Kurdish forces that Ankara views as an offshoot of its own internal insurgency.
But they quickly came under shelling by Turkish forces, who said they had fired "warning shots" at the "pro-regime terrorist groups".
In a statement, YPG spokesman Nuri Mahmud said the Kurdish forces had called on the Damascus government to help fend off Turkey's assault.
"The Syrian government responded to the invitation, answered the call of duty and sent military units today, February 20, to take up positions on the borders, and participate in defending the territorial unity of Syria and its borders," the statement said.
The YPG has controlled Afrin since government forces withdrew from Kurdish-majority northern areas in 2012.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan defended the operation's slow progress, saying rebel allies would lay siege to the town of Afrin "in the coming days".
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)