UN envoy warns of Aleppo repeat after scores killed in Syria

Violence in Ghouta ‘spiralling out of control’ as 250 die in government bombardment

Bodycam footage from the Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, shows women and children being evacuated as pro-government forces bomb the rebel-held enclave of Ghouta. Video: Syria Civil Defence

 

Aid agencies warned of an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe yesterday as Syrian government forces pounded a besieged Damascus suburb where about 250 adults and children have been killed since Sunday.

The escalating violence near the capital came as gunmen loyal to president Bashar al-Assad began entering the northwestern Afrin region to help a Kurdish militia there fend off a Turkish assault. That raised the risk of a direct military confrontation between Syrian and Turkish forces.

Warning that “an extreme escalation in hostilities” was “spiralling out of control”, the United Nations called for an immediate ceasefire in eastern Ghouta, the pocket of satellite towns and farms near Damascus where nearly 400,000 people have been under government siege since 2013. At least 106 people, including 20 children, were killed there yesterday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, on the third day of a heavy bombardment involving warplanes, helicopter gunships and missiles.

The observatory said it was the deadliest day in eastern Ghouta, now one of the last rebel-held bastions near the capital, since 2015. Videos from the area showed paramedics pulling the injured from under the rubble while others frantically dug through debris in the dark. Photographs showed dead children, families huddling in basements and bandaged people waiting at a medical point, some of them with blood streaming down their faces and their skin covered in blood.

Residents and aid workers say the 'de-escalation' deals have brought no relief. Food, fuel and medicine have dwindled

France described the government bombing as a serious violation of international humanitarian law. Panos Moumtzis, the UN’s humanitarian co-ordinator for Syria, said he was “appalled and distressed” by reports that several hospitals had been deliberately targeted since Monday and warned that such attacks could amount to war crimes.

Wider escalation

The intensifying bombardment of eastern Ghouta, where 250 people have been reported killed since Sunday, is part of a wider escalation in fighting on several fronts in Syria as Mr Assad pushes to end the seven-year rebellion against him. It could also signal plans for a possible ground assault by pro-government forces in the enclave. UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura warned that the battle in Ghouta could turn into a repeat of the bloody fight for Aleppo, over which Damascus regained full control in late 2016 after years of fighting.

“These fears seem to be well founded,” the aid group International Rescue Committee said of the parallel with Aleppo. It said malnutrition was widespread and Ghouta’s schools had been closed since early January because of the attacks.

Fighting has raged in eastern Ghouta even though it falls under ceasefire plans that Moscow brokered with the help of Turkey and Iran. The truces do not cover a former al-Qaeda affiliate, which has a small presence in the besieged enclave. Residents and aid workers say the “de-escalation” deals have brought no relief. Food, fuel and medicine have dwindled.

The government-run news agency Sana said that reports of an escalation in eastern Ghouta were “lies, deception, and fabrications” used by “terrorist organisations and their sponsors within capital cities conspiring against Syrians”. – Additional reporting: Reuters