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UN official says Eastern Ghouta humanitarian pauses 'not enough'

Syria's regime and Russia have unleashed daily airstrikes on Eastern Ghouta since February 18. [Getty]

Date of publication: 1 March, 2018

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The daily pauses began on Tuesday but so far no humanitarian aid has gone in and no civilians have left Eastern Ghouta.

The five-hour daily pauses in fighting in Syria's besieged Eastern Ghouta enclave laid out by Russia are not enough to allow aid to enter or evacuate civilians, a top UN official said on Thursday.

Syria's regime and Russia have unleashed daily airstrikes on the Eastern Ghouta region outside Damascus since February 18 in a bid to wipe out rebel groups from one of their last strongholds.

In the first ten days of the escalation in violence, more than 600 civilians, almost a quarter of them children, have been killed, making it one of the bloodiest episodes of the country's seven-year conflict.

"I know of no humanitarian actor … who thinks that five hours is enough for us to be able to deliver relief into eastern Ghouta and to organize orderly medical evacuations out," Jan Egeland said.

The UN official added that the UN Security Council resolution over the weekend calling for a 30-day cease-fire has done little to improve the situation in the rebel-held region east of Damascus.

"Since it was adopted, it did not get better — it got worse," he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered a five-hour daily humanitarian pause to allow civilians to exit the region.

The daily pauses began on Tuesday but so far, no humanitarian aid has gone in — and no civilians have left the area, except for an elderly Pakistani man and his wife who were evacuated from the town of Douma on Thursday.

Egeland's comments came after the Russian military accused Syria's rebels of shelling a humanitarian corridor that Moscow set up with the Syrian government, offering residents of Damascus' besieged eastern suburbs a way out of the embattled enclave.

Egeland, who heads humanitarian aid matters in the office of the UN Syria envoy, said the Russian plan for the five-hour pauses was "positive" but insufficient. He said that no aid has been sent to Eastern Ghouta because "we did not get a single facilitation letter by the government."

He said a meeting of the UN's humanitarian task force for Syria earlier Thursday discussed the issue of: "Can we sit down now with Russia and others and see whether we can help make this pause/initiative meet humanitarian standards for a pause and a corridor."

Residents of Eastern Ghouta say they do not trust the Russia-declared truce and the UN and aid agencies have criticised the unilateral arrangement, saying it gave no guarantees of safety for residents wishing to leave.

They also fear their region could meet the same fate as the eastern, rebel-held half of the city of Aleppo, where a similar Russian-ordered pause in 2016 called on residents to evacuate the area and for gunmen to lay down their arms.

A full ground assault followed, finally bringing Aleppo under government control in December 2016.

The UN envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura insisted that a regime-led assault on Eastern Ghouta must not devolve into a "copycat" of the bloody siege on Aleppo.

"We cannot afford to have the luxury of giving up. So any type of feeling that the UN is frustrated: Forget it," he said.

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