UN aid convoy reaches Eastern Ghouta after medical supplies stripped


World Health Organisation says about 70 percent of the equipment bound for Eastern Ghouta was removed during an inspection.

An aid convoy began to cross into Syria’s Eastern Ghouta on Monday, after it was stripped of medical supplies by the Syrian government.

It is the first aid convoy to enter the Damascus suburb since the Syrian government launched a deadly assault two weeks ago, which has killed hundreds of civilians and injured many more.

A senior UN official accompanying the convoy said he was “not happy” to hear loud shelling near the crossing point into eastern Ghouta despite an agreement that the aid would be delivered under peaceful conditions.

“We need to be assured that we will be able to deliver the humanitarian assistance under good conditions,” Ali al-Zatari told the Reuters news agency at the crossing point.

A World Health Organisation (WHO) official said government authorities had removed most medical material from UN vehicles, preventing surgical kits, insulin, dialysis equipment and other supplies from reaching the enclave of 400,000 people.

Zatari said the convoy had been scaled back from providing food for 70,000 people to providing for 27,500. The UN says Syria has agreed to let it bring the rest of the food for the full 70,000 in a second convoy in three days. “The convoy is not sufficient,” Zatari said.

President Bashar al-Assad vowed on Sunday to continue a military push into the biggest remaining opposition stronghold near Damascus, saying the offensive did not contradict five-hour ceasefires arranged each day by his main ally Russia.

A wider, full ceasefire backed by the UN Security Council has not come into effect during the campaign, which began with massive government air strikes two weeks ago and has continued in recent days with a ground assault.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said the death toll from the offensive had exceeded 700 people in two weeks of intense bombardment on the densely populated region of farmland and towns.

Pro-Assad forces have made sudden advances into eastern Ghouta in recent days, capturing a third of the area, the Observatory said, and bringing them close to cutting it in two. Late on Sunday, a rebel official said factions in eastern Ghouta were working together to prepare to retake lost ground.

The siege of Eastern Ghouta
Syrian state television broadcast on Monday morning from al-Shifouniyeh, one of the villages captured by the government, showing collapsed concrete buildings, rubble-strewn streets and bullet-pocked walls.

The area has been under siege by government forces since 2013, and the UN had feared that people inside were running out of food and medicine even before the major assault began two weeks ago. Only one convoy of aid has reached the area so far in 2018, on 14 February.

In comments broadcast by state television on Sunday, Assad dismissed Western statements about the humanitarian situation in eastern Ghouta as “a ridiculous lie”.

Moscow made a similar case at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva: “The media atmosphere is saturated with lies,” Russian diplomat Alexei Goltyaev said. “As a result we see debates and votes that are entirely removed from the actual situation on the ground.”

Monday’s convoy of trucks sent by the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent passed the last Syrian government checkpoint and began to drive into the rebel-held area, a Reuters witness said.

While falling short of a 30-day ceasefire demanded by the UN, Russia’s announcement last week of daily humanitarian pauses in fighting had raised hopes of some aid deliveries and evacuations.

Damascus and Moscow have accused rebels of preventing civilians from leaving.

On the international front, US President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May said Russia and Syria were responsible for the “heart-breaking human suffering” in Eastern Ghouta.

The US on Sunday made its strongest accusation to date of Moscow’s complicity in civilian deaths in Syria, saying Russian aircraft flew bombing missions over the Ghouta region in defiance of the United Nations ceasefire.

The White House said Russian military aircraft took off from Khmeimim airfield in Syria and carried out at least 20 daily bombing missions in Damascus and Eastern Ghouta between 24 and 28 February.

It did not say whether the jets dropped ordnance, which could be harder to determine than tracking the flight paths of Russian aircraft on US radar. But the United States directly accused Russia of killing civilians.

“Russia has gone on to ignore (a UN ceasefire’s) terms and to kill innocent civilians under the false auspices of counter-terrorism operations,” the White House said in a statement.

French President Emmanuel Macron called on his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani to put the “necessary pressure” on Syria’s government to halt “indiscriminate” attacks on civilians.

The UN’s regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Panos Moumtzis, sounded the alarm over the increased violence.

“Instead of a much-needed reprieve, we continue to see more fighting, more death, and more disturbing reports of hunger and hospitals being bombed,” he said.

“This collective punishment of civilians is simply unacceptable.”

As Syria’s conflict this month approaches its seventh anniversary, Assad’s forces, heavily backed by Russia, have retaken most of the territory once lost to rebels.

Image: Middle East Monitor

Article: Middle East Eye