Aid convoy reaches eastern Ghouta but Syria removes medical supplies
Macron calls Putin to urge acceptance of ceasefire called for by UN Security Council
Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers give medical supplies to civilians in eastern Ghouta on Monday. Photograph: Syrian Arab Red Crescent/Reuters
An aid convoy has entered the besieged, rebel-held Syrian enclave in eastern Ghouta, two weeks into a renewed regime offensive that has killed more than 700 civilians.
Despite being allowed to deliver food for about 27,000 of the 400,000 people trapped in the enclave, humanitarian officials said the Syrian military had refused to allow the loading of critically needed medical aid.
A desperate shortage of supplies meant that the wounded have been dying from treatable injuries and illnesses, aid organisations said.
The convoy of 46 trucks, sent by the International Committee for the Red Cross, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the United Nations, started to cross a final Syrian army checkpoint at al-Wafideen on Monday morning.
The aid delivery – the first in weeks – will offer a brief respite for some of the residents of the enclave near the capital, Damascus, who have endured two weeks of intense violence despite a UN Security Council resolution last week demanding a ceasefire and the delivery of aid. The carnage has continued despite a daily five-hour truce ordered by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
French president Emmanuel Macron urged Mr Putin in a telephone call on Monday to ensure Syria accepted “without any ambiguity” the UN-agreed ceasefire.
In a statement, the Élysée Palace said the five-hour daily pause decided on by Russia was inadequate, andthat humanitarian convoys “must be able to reach all populations in need unhindered and without further delay”.
A World Health Organisation official said: “During the obligatory routine inspection conducted by Syrian national authorities, many supplies in the WHO shipment were rejected, including all trauma, surgical, dialysis sessions and insulin.
“WHO has long spoken out against the removal or rejection of lifesaving treatments and medical items from aid convoys by national authorities. The health supplies provided by WHO in these convoys are selected after extensive consultations with health partners working in these areas and are desperately needed to save lives and reduce suffering.”
Doctors on the ground said 712 people had been killed and more than 5,600 wounded since February 19th. A further 44 people were killed on Monday, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Air strikes and artillery bombardment have been coupled with a ground offensive by the regime of Bashar al-Assad and his allied Shia militias, whose advances are aimed at splitting eastern Ghouta in half and cutting off rebel fighters.
Thousands of civilians have fled from the advancing government troops deeper into Ghouta. “People are scared of massacres and so they are fleeing inwards,” said one doctor in Ghouta.
Some of the heaviest fighting on Sunday was concentrated in the area of Beit Sawa, on the eastern edge of the densely populated centre of eastern Ghouta, where civilians fled clashes between regime forces and Jaysh al-Islam, one of three main rebel groups.
Thousands in the encircled area have been sheltering in freezing basements and underground shelters in an attempt to escape from the daily bombardment.
At a press conference on Sunday evening, Mr Assad vowed to continue what he described as a battle against terrorism in the enclave.
Denying access to medical aid and targeting hospitals in eastern Ghouta has been condemned as a deliberate policy of the Assad regime.
Abdulkarim Ekzayez, a senior fellow at the Centre on Global Health Security, wrote on the Chatham House website last month that targeting healthcare facilities had been used in the past as a tactic to force the displacement of civilians.
“This scenario has happened several times in various locations in Syria over the past six years,” Mr Ekzayez wrote. “As early as February 2012, people were forced to leave their homes in the Baba Amr neighbourhood in Homs city after the Assad regime destroyed most civilian infrastructure and all field hospitals there.
“In December 2016, preceding the agreement to evacuate 250,000 people from eastern Aleppo, all hospitals were destroyed and dozens of medical staff were killed. By then, opposition groups had no other option but to surrender.” – Guardian