Int'l pressure mounts | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 23, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, February 23, 2018

BLOODBATH IN EASTERN GHOUTA

Int'l pressure mounts

UNSC set to vote on ceasefire to avert 'massacre' as death toll rises to 368

  • Dozens more killed as regime bombardment enters fifth day

  • Russia open to 30-day truce but excluding militants

  • Germany, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar call for end of violence

Warplanes pounded the last rebel enclave near the Syrian capital for a fifth straight day yesterday as the United Nations pleaded for a ceasefire to halt one of the fiercest air assaults of the seven-year civil war and prevent a "massacre".

At least 368 people have been killed, including 150 children, in the rural eastern Ghouta district on the outskirts of Damascus since Sunday night, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor.

More than 1,850 people have been wounded in the assault by Syria's military and its allies. Planes have struck residential areas and, according to medical charities, hit more than a dozen hospitals making it near impossible to treat the wounded.

"There is a need for avoiding (a) massacre, because we will be judged by history," UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said. He called on the UN Security Council to declare a ceasefire.

The UN Security Council is expected to vote, probably on Thursday, on a draft resolution demanding a 30-day ceasefire to allow deliveries of aid and medical evacuations.

President Bashar al-Assad's main ally Russia, which wields a veto on the Security Council, said it could support a 30-day truce, but not one that included the Islamist militants it says the eastern Ghouta operation is meant to target.

Moscow said fighters in Eastern Ghouta had rejected Russia's offer to evacuate peacefully and were using civilians there as human shields.

The existing "de-escalation zone" agreement that has failed to halt fighting does not include the Islamist faction formerly known as Nusra Front, and rebels in Ghouta say it is the presence of a small number of Nusra militants that is constantly used as a pretext for the siege and bombardment of the enclave.

Residents of Douma, the biggest town in eastern Ghouta, described plumes of black smoke billowing from residential areas after planes dropped bombs from high altitude. Searches were under way for bodies amid the rubble in the town of Saqba and elsewhere, said rescuers.

International attention is now focused on the humanitarian plight in the eastern Ghouta, where 400,000 people have been under siege for years and where government bombardment escalated sharply on Sunday, causing mass civilian casualties.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday called for an end to the "massacre" in Syria.

She was joined by Gulf states. Rival Saudi Arabia and Qatar joined ranks in calling for an immediate truce.

Regional titan Riyadh, which leads a four-state Arab bloc boycotting Qatar over accusations of ties to both Sunni Islamists and Shiite Iran, demanded the regime of Bashar al-Assad end the violence that has left more than 300 people dead and sparked international outrage.

The statement however stopped short of outright condemnation, appealing instead to Damascus to adhere to UN Security Council resolution 2254, which calls for a nationwide ceasefire and a political transition.

Rival Qatar, however, slammed the assault as an outright "massacre".

Moscow and Damascus say their assault on eastern Ghouta is necessary to defeat rebels who have been firing mortars on the capital - government territory throughout the war.

A White House statement said Washington backed the UN call for a ceasefire to allow access for aid and medical evacuations.

Aid workers and residents say Syrian army helicopters have been dropping "barrel bombs" - oil drums packed with explosives and shrapnel - on marketplaces and medical centres.

Residents and insurgents in eastern Ghouta say Russian planes are also involved.

Opposition-held eastern Ghouta has been under siege by Assad's forces since 2013. After government gains since 2015, it is the final rebel bastion near the capital.

Residents and opposition figures say the Syrian government and its allies are deliberately harming civilians with a "scorched earth policy" to force rebels to surrender.

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