The Russian military has accused Syria’s rebels of shelling a humanitarian corridor set up by Moscow and the Syrian government, offering residents of Damascus’ besieged eastern suburbs a way out of the embattled enclave.
Russian president Vladimir Putin had ordered a five-hour daily humanitarian pause to allow civilians to leave eastern Ghouta. The daily pauses began on Tuesday but, so far, no humanitarian aid has gone in – and no civilians have left.
The eastern suburbs, a cluster of several towns and villages on Damascus’ eastern edge, have faced a brutal onslaught over a number of weeks by Syrian government troops, backed by Russia.
Residents have said they do not trust the truce. The UN and aid agencies have also criticised the unilateral arrangement, saying it gives no guarantee of safety for residents wishing to leave.
Eastern Ghouta residents also fear their region would meet the same fate as the eastern, rebel-held half of the city of Aleppo, where a similar Russian-ordered pause in 2016 called on residents to evacuate the area and for gunmen to lay down their arms.
A full ground assault followed, finally bringing Aleppo under government control.
We lost another hero today " Mahmoud Alkilani" a volunteer of @SCDrifdimashq in #EasternGhouta, killed after the brutal air raids targeted the civilinas and SCD teams during there humanitarian duty in #Otaya city in #BesiegedGhouta. #RIP #Heroes #SaveGhouta pic.twitter.com/1jVbZVsHlj— The White Helmets (@SyriaCivilDef) February 28, 2018
Russian Major General Vladimir Zolotukhin said militants who control the suburbs are shelling the route and preventing evacuations.
State-run al-Ikhbariya TV reported that dozens of civilians had gathered on the edge of eastern Ghotua to leave, but were prevented by insurgents from reaching a crossing point into government-controlled areas.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said before the truce went into effect at 9am on Thursday, government shelling and air strikes on eastern Ghouta killed three people. The opposition’s Syrian Civil Defence, also known as White Helmets, confirmed the casualty figure.
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, SANA, said a civilian was wounded by a mortar shell fired by the insurgents in eastern Ghouta at the Bab al-Salam area in the old city of Damascus.
The Russia-ordered pause came after a UN Security Council resolution calling for a nationwide 30-day ceasefire failed to take hold. While the relentless bombing has subsided in eastern Ghouta, home to around 400,000 civilians, the Syrian government’s push to squeeze the insurgents out of the region continued.
Elsewhere in Syria, a convoy of 28 trucks carrying aid entered the northern Kurdish enclave of Afrin, where Turkish troops have been on the offensive since June 20 against Syrian Kurdish fighters. The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said Turkish troops and Turkey-backed opposition fighters are targeting the convoy near the village of Marimameen.
The Observatory said Turkish warplanes conducted air strikes as the convoy headed towards Afrin.
Ankara said Turkey would not suspend its military operations against the Syrian Kurdish fighters during the 30-day ceasefire demanded by the United Nations.
Turkish government spokesman Bekir Bozdag said Turkish authorities claimed that the UN resolution does not apply to the Afrin offensive since it excludes operations against terror groups.
Turkey considers the US-backed Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, a “terrorist” organisation connected to a Kurdish insurgency within its own borders.