Death toll in Syria enclave tops 500 after UN delays truce vote

People inspect missile remains in the besieged town of Douma, in eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria. Photograph:( Reuters )

WION Web Team New Delhi, Delhi, India Feb 24, 2018, 05.13 PM (IST)

New air strikes on the Syrian rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta on Saturday took the civilian death toll from seven days of devastating bombardment to more than 500 after the United Nations again delayed a vote on a ceasefire.

A total of 127 children figure among the 510 dead in the bombing campaign that the regime launched last Sunday on the enclave just outside Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The Britain-based monitor of the war said at least 32 civilians were killed in Saturday's strikes, including eight children. A night of heavy bombardment sparked fires in residential districts, it said.

The Observatory has said the air strikes are being carried out by Syrian and Russian forces. Moscow, which intervened militarily in support of its Damascus ally in 2015, has denied any direct involvement in the Eastern Ghouta bombardment.

US President Donald Trump on Friday said Russia's recent actions in Syria were a "disgrace".

The UN Security Council on Friday delayed to 19:30 GMT a vote on a draft resolution demanding a 30-day ceasefire in Syria, diplomats said.

Negotiations were continuing to avoid a Russia veto of the text that would establish a truce to allow humanitarian aid deliveries and medical evacuations.

Turkey urged the international community to end the bloodshed in Eastern Ghouta. "The world should say stop to this massacre," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's spokesman said on Twitter.

Control of Eastern Ghouta is shared between two main Islamist factions, while Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate is also present, and Russia insists there can be no ceasefire with the jihadists or their allies.

Russia has been pressing for a negotiated withdrawal of rebel fighters and their families like the one that saw the government retake full control of second city Aleppo in December 2016. But all three rebel groups have refused.

During a council meeting called by Russia, Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia presented a new raft of amendments to a draft resolution that would allow deliveries of humanitarian aid and medical evacuations during the pause.

Negotiations on the draft presented by Sweden and Kuwait on February 9 have dragged on as hundreds of Syrians have died in a fierce government air campaign in the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta.

World leaders have expressed outrage at the plight of civilians in Eastern Ghouta, which UN chief Antonio Guterres called "hell on earth", but have so far been powerless to halt the bloodshed.

The enclave is completely surrounded by government-controlled territory and its 400,000 residents are unwilling or unable to flee the deadly siege.

In one of the many unfolding dramas at a Douma field hospital, a young woman amputated from the knee breastfed a 40-day-old infant who had lost his entire family in the bombings.

"She doesn't know yet that her own daughter has been killed," a nurse said.

Food supplies have been running dry, with bread no longer available on local markets.

"I haven't eaten since the day before yesterday," said a mother in a shelter with her two children in Douma, Eastern Ghouta's main town. "They haven't stopped crying for three days."

The cornered rebels in Eastern Ghouta have been firing back into Damascus, where six civilians were wounded on Saturday, state media said.

Around 20 people have been killed in eastern districts of the capital since Sunday, according to state media, and many residents have sought temporary accommodation elsewhere for fear of a further intensification of the fighting.

At the United Nations, US ambassador Nikki Haley expressed dismay as negotiations dragged on to secure Russian approval for a ceasefire resolution.

"Unbelievable that Russia is stalling a vote on a ceasefire allowing humanitarian access in Syria," Haley posted on Twitter.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron wrote to Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Friday to ask him to back the ceasefire.

Negotiations have stumbled over a key provision of the draft resolution that specifies when the ceasefire will begin.

Following hours of tough negotiations, an amended draft was circulated that demands a 30-day ceasefire "without delay," while stopping short of specifying the timing.  

A previous draft had said the ceasefire would go into force 72 hours after the adoption, but that was dropped from the text in a bid to reach compromise with Russia.

In another concession to Russia, the draft also specifies that the ceasefire will not apply to operations against the Islamic State group or Al-Qaeda, along with "individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated" with the blacklisted terror groups.

The text would demand the immediate lifting of all sieges in Syria, including that on Eastern Ghouta, and order all sides to "cease depriving civilians of food and medicine indispensable to their survival".