Russia-ordered 'pause' goes into effect east of Damascus
By SARAH EL DEEB, Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — A brief, Russia-ordered “humanitarian pause” went into effect on Tuesday as Syrian and Russian forces set up a corridor to allow civilians to leave a rebel-held enclave near Damascus, but by the end of the five-hour pause, no civilians had crossed over from the embattled territory.
The lull gave a brief respite to the estimated 400,000 residents of besieged eastern Ghouta, which has been under intense attack by the Syrian government for weeks.
The United Nations and aid workers criticized the unilateral arrangement, saying the situation was not such that convoys can go in or people in need of medical evacuations can come out of the enclave.
The enclave’s 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.
Footage on Tuesday from a crossing point manned by the Syrian military between eastern Ghouta and Damascus showed preparations were under way to allow civilians to leave, including small buses waiting at a parking area and soldiers milling about. Syria’s state-run Al-Ikhbariya TV said a restaurant was also set up there, but there were no signs of anyone emerging.
Russia’s state news agency Tass said Russian military police on the ground have set up the humanitarian corridor with the Syrian troops.
The Wafideen crossing point is near Douma, one of the largest towns in eastern Ghouta, and is about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the center of Damascus.
Al-Ikhbariya’s journalist on the ground said mortar shells had targeted the crossing, preventing civilians from leaving. It was not immediately possible to verify the claim. A least a couple of mortars were heard as the broadcast was live, some appeared to be outgoing from government areas.
The director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdurrahman, said about five shells from government areas fell on the enclave. One shell fell in an area where the government had began a ground offensive, and it was not clear if it was fired by the government or the rebels.
Russian Gen. Viktor Pankov told Tass that residents can’t leave because of the shelling.
The Russian five-hour humanitarian pause, ordered by President Vladimir Putin, comes as a U.N. cease-fire failed to take hold in eastern Ghouta. Residents and aid groups criticized such unilateral truces for lacking international monitoring and consensus of all the parties.
Ingy Sedky, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said humanitarian corridors need to be well planned and must be implemented with the consent of parties on all sides.
“This is essential so that people can leave safely, if they chose to do so,” she said. “And for those who decide to leave, all measure should be taken to provide assistance, protection and shelter to them. And those who remain must be protected from any attacks.”
The U.N. coordinator for humanitarian affairs also said conditions were not conducive for any aid deliveries.
“We have reports this morning that there is continued fighting in eastern Ghouta, so clearly the situation on the ground is not such that, for example, convoys can go in or medical evacuations can come out,” Jens Laerke said at a U.N. briefing in Geneva.
The enclave’s residents fear they could face harassment and possibly arrest if they go into government areas, after years of living in the rebel-held enclave.
A weekend resolution unanimously approved by the U.N. Security Council for a 30-day cease-fire across Syria failed to stop the carnage in eastern Ghouta where more than 500 people have been killed since last week.
At least 34 people were killed on Monday by airstrikes and shelling, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The U.N. estimates that nearly 400,000 people live in dire conditions from the siege in eastern Ghouta, which has been under intensive bombing by government forces for weeks.
Aburrahman of the Observatory said violence has dramatically declined in eastern Ghouta overnight but reported a number of shells on Tuesday morning. It was not immediately clear where they landed or who fired them, he said.
Firas Abdullah, a Douma activist, said a bomb landed in the town after the pause began, as well as three ground missiles.
Civilians caught in the violence have mocked Putin’s order of a five-hour open corridor, saying it gives only a couple of hours of calm before violence resumes. The Army of Islam, which is the largest insurgent group in Ghouta, said the Russia-ordered pauses circumvents the U.N. resolution.
“The only ones who will leave are the occupiers and Assad’s regime, we are the owners of the land,” Mohammed Alloush of the Army of Islam told The Associated Press.
Russia’s military campaign to support Syrian President Bashar Assad has helped turned the tide of the war in the Syrian government’s favor.
Abu Ammar Dalwan, an Army of Islam member in Ghouta, said government shelling continued after the cease-fire and helicopters were flying overhead. He denied his group was shelling the Wafideen corridor.
Dalwan said Ghouta residents had decided to stay following years of violence, even though they had the option of leaving through tunnels which were operational until the recent assault began.
Dalwan said evacuating people under the threat of shelling amounted to a war crime. “We want the international community to stop such a war crime,” he said.
Associated Press writers Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.