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Middle East

Violence mars first day of ‘pause’ in Eastern Ghouta

© Stringer, AFP | View from government-held area in Damascus shows smoke rising from Eastern Ghouta on February 27, 2018.

Video by FRANCE 24

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2018-02-27

A five-hour truce Tuesday morning ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin was not respected in Eastern Ghouta, where fighting killed at least two civilians and prevented humanitarian groups from delivering aid or evacuating residents.

Syrian government warplanes continued to strike Eastern Ghouta, killing at least two people, according to residents of the enclave situated on the outskirts of Damascus. Meanwhile, Syrian government officials accused rebels of shelling a safe route meant for civilian evacuations.

“The truce was supposed to begin today at 9am and last for five hours until 2pm. But in fact what happened was an outbreak of violence,” said FRANCE 24’s Chloé Domat, reporting from the Lebanese capital of Beirut.

“Syrian state media reported that everything was in place for the evacuations to begin, with medical equipment and buses supposed to take civilians to shelters. But the operations were jeopardised as some rebel groups, including al Nusra, started firing rockets at the humanitarian corridors. On the other hand, the people we talk to regularly in Eastern Ghouta over the phone said the regime continued shelling the rebel enclave, that nobody was able to get out, and that in fact the ceasefire was never respected since it was voted on Saturday night.”

The UN Security Council resolution voted for a ceasefire in Syria on Saturday, but it did not specify a start date.

On Monday, Russia ordered a daily five-hour pause starting Tuesday, urging civilians to leave as Moscow-backed government forces stepped up their offensive.

France 24's Chloé Domat reports as eastern Ghouta truce begins

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

Humanitarian groups said they were unable to distribute urgently needed aid into the enclave since the five-hour period offered little time for securing the permissions and provided no safety guarantees.

Their concerns were echoed by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian during a visit to Moscow Tuesday. "The first five hours of the truce is real progress. We support it, but it is just one step," said Le Drian during a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.

Rebel groups send letter to UN

The UN Security Council ceasefire resolution makes an exception for fighting groups recognised as terrorist organisations by the international community. These include al Nusra, al Qaeda, the Islamic State (IS) group and their affiliates.

“Technically this gives the regime the possibility to continue shelling Eastern Ghouta,” explained Domat.

As the fighting continued on the ground, three main rebel groups operating in the enclave -- Jaish al-Islam, Faylaq al-Rahman and Ahrar al-Sham -- sent a letter to the UN declaring their “complete commitment to deport” jihadist fighters from Eastern Ghouta.

The letter said such an evacuation, which has been discussed previously but never yielded any result, would take 15 days and start when a UN truce takes effect.

Another group, Tahrir al-Sham, an alliance of jihadists including Nusra, also has a small presence in Eastern Ghouta.

Meanwhile in Idlib, Ahrar al-Sham and Tahrir al-Sham have been fighting each other in recent days, rather than cooperating.

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

The Syrian government lost control of Eastern Ghouta in 2012 and has besieged it almost ever since.

Residents try to use lull in fighting

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said the intensity of the bombardment had diminished since the UN resolution was adopted over the weekend, but that 21 people had been killed in Eastern Ghouta on Monday.

In Eastern Ghouta, people were using the relative lull to find provisions, Moayad Hafi, a rescue worker based there, told Reuters.

"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 said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

Date created : 2018-02-27


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