Renewed violence as Red Cross delivers aid in Syria
Beirut – Relief workers used a brief lull in Damascus’ embattled rebel-held suburbs to deliver aid left over from a mission earlier in the week but were interrupted by renewed violence shorty after their team entered eastern Ghouta on Friday.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said a convoy of 13 trucks with supplies, including food parcels for 12,000 people, went into Douma – the largest and most populated town in the rebel-held eastern Ghouta, on the edge of the Syrian capital – earlier in the day.
Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Douma was shelled before the convoy went in. Once the relief workers arrived, Syrian government forces shelled the outskirts of the town, he said.
Reports were sketchy and it was not immediately clear if the ICRC, UN and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent had offloaded all the aid.
Later on Friday, Syrian state TV showed a convoy of SUVs and trucks returning from eastern Ghouta into the government-held capital after they reportedly delivered the aid.
An aid worker said all the supplies were offloaded in eastern Ghouta and now the convoy is getting out. The aid worker spoke on condition of anonymity for not being authorized to speak to the media as the operation is still ongoing.
ICRC regional director Robert Mardini tweeted earlier that the convoy was “taken aback by renewed violence,” adding that “we call on warring sides for an immediate humanitarian pause to allow” the ICRC, the U.N. and Syrian Arab Red Crescent teams to deliver vital aid to people in eastern Ghouta.
ICRC spokeswoman Ingy Sedky said the teams “are still in and they are doing all their best to offload the remaining” trucks. She did not elaborate.
Mohammed Alloush, the political chief of the Army of Islam rebel group, told The Associated Press that the convoy is inside Douma and that “they are being targeted by the regime although they have informed the Russians about their location.” Alloush’s group is the largest in eastern Ghouta and controls Douma.
The delivery consists of supplies that were not offloaded during a mission to the enclave on Monday, which was cut short because of deteriorating security. The trucks had been stuck at the Wafideen crossing over the entire week, waiting to enter and deliver the remaining food parcels and flour bags.
Sedky said earlier that the ICRC went into eastern Ghouta on Friday “after getting security guarantees from all parties to make sure no incident will happen during the presence of our team” there.
The attempt followed what opposition activists and the Observatory said was one of the quietest nights in eastern Ghouta since Syrian government forces escalated their assault on the rebellious region on Feb. 18.
The government and its Russian backers, determined to wrest eastern Ghouta from rebel control after seven years of war, recently intensified the shelling and bombardment to clear the way for its troops to advance on the ground. Around 900 people have been killed in the past three weeks of relentless bombardment.
Doctors Without Borders said Friday that between Feb. 18 and March 3 at least 1,005 people were killed and 4,829 wounded – or 71 killed and 344 wounded on average per day. The group known by its French acronym, MSF, said that the data was collected from 10 medical facilities that it provides with full support and another 10 facilities it provides with emergency medical donations inside the eastern Ghouta enclave.
“Two of these facilities have yet to submit data for March 3, so this is an underestimation,” MSF said. It added that 15 of the 20 hospitals and clinics that MSF supports have been hit by bombing or shelling, with varying degrees of damage.
“The numbers alone speak volumes. But even more telling are the words we hear from the medics we are supporting on the ground,” said MSF Director General Meinie Nicolai. “Daily, we hear an increasing sense of hopelessness and despair, as our medical colleagues reach the limits of what a person can be expected to do.”
Government forces this week advanced from the east and were only about a mile away from linking with forces on the western side of eastern Ghouta.
The military gains have caused wide-scale internal displacement as civilians flee government advances toward areas in the territory still held by the rebels.
Nearly 400,000 people are believed to be inside eastern Ghouta. The most built-up and densely populated areas still under rebel control include the towns of Douma, Harasta, Jisreen, Kfar Batna, Saqba and Hammouriyeh.
The Observatory reported airstrikes on Douma and Jisreen just before the 13-truck convoy arrived Friday, following a hourslong lull. It said the lull was result of local negotiations brokered by unnamed Damascus businessmen with the government to try and reach a solution that would secure the exit of fighters and civilians from eastern Ghouta.
State-run Syrian TV on Friday reported that “dozens of civilians” would likely get out of eastern Ghouta, in addition to 13 gunmen who had turned themselves in, via the Wafideen safe corridor designated by the government. The outlet has been reporting since last week that rebels have prevented civilians from leaving.
State TV later said that insurgents targeted the Wafideen corridor on Friday afternoon with bullets and mortar shells to prevent people from leaving.
The Observatory, which monitors the Syria war through a network of activists on the ground, also reported that dozens of people from the town of Hammouriyeh in eastern Ghouta staged a demonstration, holding Syrian flags and calling for the end to the fighting in the area.
There was no confirmation by any of the rebel groups based in eastern Ghouta of negotiations to leave eastern Ghouta.
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