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UN Rights Council postpones vote on Syria resolution as offensive on Eastern Ghouta continues

Ammar SULEIMAN / AFP | A Syrian youth with a cart walks past destroyed buildings in the rebel-held besieged town of Ayn Tarma in the eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on March 2, 2018.

The UN Human Rights Council on Friday postponed voting on a British resolution condemning the crisis in Syria's besieged rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta, after members-states failed to agree on a final text.


The UN Human Rights Council on Friday postponed voting on a British resolution condemning the crisis in Syria's besieged rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta after members-states failed to agree on a final text.

The British draft introduced at an emergency council session calls for immediate humanitarian access to the area, where a controversial truce unilaterally declared by Damascus-ally Russia has been unable to produce a breakthrough.

The draft also instructs war crimes investigators from the UN-backed Commission of Inquiry for Syria to conduct an investigation into alleged atrocities in the area battered by a Russia-backed regime assault that began February 18.

On Sunday, Syrian government forces launched a ground assault on the Hawsh al-Dawahra area of Eastern Ghouta, seeking to gain territory despite the Russian ceasefire plan. On Wednesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported a resumption of the assault and further advances for regime troops. By Friday, the Observatory said regime forces had captured two villages -- Hawsh al-Dawahra and Hawsh Zreika -- in addition to hills and farmland.

Assad has steadily won back territory from rebels with critical military backing from Russia and Iran. In spite of international pressure on Damascus to halt the offensive, Eastern Ghouta appears on course to eventually fall to government forces too.

Damascus appears to be applying tried and tested military means, combining air strikes and bombardment with ground assaults, as it did to recapture East Aleppo from rebels including groups that once received US support.

'War crimes'

In the meantime, the top UN human rights official said Friday that air strikes on the besieged Syrian enclave of Eastern Ghouta and shelling from the rebel-held zone into Damascus probably constitute war crimes and must be prosecuted.

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, UN high commissioner for human rights, said the perpetrators of such crimes in Syria should know they were being identified and that dossiers were being built with a view to future prosecutions.

Hussam Aala, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, said that Zeid was “selective and biased” and that the debate was “politicised”.

After US President Donald Trump spoke to the leaders of France and Germany about the situation on Friday, all three countries upped the pressure on Damascus.

Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed in a phone call that the Syrian regime must be held accountable.

“This applies both to the Assad regime’s deployment of chemical weapons and for its attacks against civilians and the blockade of humanitarian support,” a German chancellery statement said.

Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, vowed there would be “no impunity” in the event of further chemical weapons use in Syria.

Washington has asked the UN Security Council to set up a new inquiry into chemical weapons attacks in Syria after reports of suspected chlorine use in Eastern Ghouta, according to a draft resolution obtained by AFP on Thursday.

The Syrian government has denied using chemical weapons and Russia has questioned UN findings that it carried out sarin and chlorine attacks.

On Saturday, the UN Security Council called for a 30-day countrywide truce. Russia, which backs the Syrian government in the war, has instead called for daily humanitarian ceasefires from 9am to 2pm (0700 GMT to 1200 GMT).

Struggling to cope

On Friday, distrust ran high among civilians in Eastern Ghouta on the fourth day of a daily five-hour “humanitarian pause”.

The pause announced by Russia has lessened but not halted the deadly bombing, which has ripped through homes and reduced residential areas to grey rubble.

Embattled Syrian civilians have not left the enclave, despite a Russian offer of safe passage out during the daily halt in fighting.

“People are still in their cellars because they don’t feel safe,” a 24-year-old who gave his name as Mohammed told AFP in the devastated town of Hammuriyeh.

Damascus and Moscow accuse the armed opposition of preventing civilians from leaving.

But fear could also be enough to keep people in hiding: government air strikes and bombardment have killed more than 600 civilians in the enclave since February 18.

In the main town of Douma, 25-year-old Malik Mohammad told AFP the daily pause had not brought any peace of mind to civilians.

“During the pause, the bombing continues for five hours outside Douma and as soon as it ends, it starts up again inside,” Mohammad said.

Eastern Ghouta’s 400,000 residents have lived under regime siege since 2013, facing severe food and medicine shortages even before the latest offensive. The recent onslaught has left medical staff in Eastern Ghouta struggling to cope with the wounded.

In a hospital in the main town of Douma this week, 18-month-old Hala cried in pain as a member of staff examined her bandaged left leg.

Without the necessary medical supplies to treat the infant, her leg will likely have to be amputated, explained a trainee doctor who gave his name as Mohammed.

“Her story is a shame on humanity,” he said.

Waiting for aid convoys

People in Eastern Ghouta are surviving on what little food they have, sometimes relying on meagre meals of rice and bread from charities, an AFP correspondent said.

The price of rice and pasta has soared, as they become increasingly rare in shops.

Those who grow food have been unable to visit their land due to the bombardment.

On Thursday, Jan Egeland, the head of the UN’s humanitarian taskforce for Syria, said he hoped aid convoys may be able to go to Eastern Ghouta “in the next few days”.

The UN children’s agency UNICEF said on Friday the Syrian government may allow an aid convoy with supplies for 180,000 people to go to the Eastern Ghouta town of Douma on Sunday.

“We have an indication from the government of Syria that an aid convoy will be allowed in on March 4, that is the day after tomorrow. We hope that indication turns into a bold commitment,” UNICEF Middle East Director Geert Cappelaere said. “We are ready to move in.”

The United Nations Human Rights Council was to hold an emergency session later Friday on the crisis, as dozens of aid trucks remained unable to enter the enclave.


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