France, Russia send first joint humanitarian aid to Syria
France and Russia despatched a plane carrying humanitarian aid to the ravaged former Syrian rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta on Saturday, which was retaken by government forces in April after a five-year siege.
A Russian Antonov 124 military cargo plane carrying 50 tons of medical aid and humanitarian supplies left the airport at the central French city of Chateauroux at 3am (0100 GMT), the airport's head Mark Bottemine told AFP.
Undertaken as part of a UN Security Council resolution, "the aim of this project is to enable civilian populations better access to aid," a joint Franco-Russian statement said.
The plane is heading for Russia's Hmeimim air base in the west of Syria. It is the first joint humanitarian aid operation between Russia and a western country.
The aid will be distributed on Saturday under the supervision of the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (OCHA).
"Humanitarian assistance is an absolute priority and must be distributed in accordance with principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence across all Syrian territory without exception, where international humanitarian law must be fully respected," the joint statement said.
France had secured "guarantees" from Russia that the Syrian regime would not obstruct the distribution of the aid, and that it would not be misappropriated or diverted for political purposes, the foreign ministry said.
More than 1,700 civilians were killed during the Syrian regime's operation in Eastern Ghouta in March and April. According to the Russian military, more than 160,000 people, both military and civilians, were evacuated from the region.
The cargo comprises medical equipment, tents, cooking utensils and blankets, said an AFP photographer who witnessed the plane being loaded.
The medical aid is aimed at some 500 people who have been seriously injured and the 15,000 others who have lighter injuries during the fighting in Eastern Ghouta, on the fringes of the Syrian capital Damascus.
The delivery came after the Russian ministry of defence said Moscow put forward plans to Washington to cooperate on the return of refugees to war-torn Syria, days after a summit between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.
"Specific proposals on how work could be organised to ensure that refugees can return home have been sent to the American side," senior ministry official, General Mikhail Mizintsev, said in a statement.
The proposals "take into account the agreements reached by the Russian and American presidents during their meeting in Helsinki" on Monday, he said.
Trump and Putin announced they had reached several points of agreement following their first bilateral summit in the Finnish capital, but did not provide further details.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed on Friday this had been part of the presidents' talks.
"There was a discussion between President Trump and President Putin about the resolution in Syria and how we might get the refugees back," Pompeo told reporters at UN headquarters in New York.
"It's important that at the right time, through voluntary mechanism, the refugees are able to return to their home country.
"There is lots of work to do to figure out how to implement that, but the United States certainly wants to be part of helping to achieve that resolution in Syria."
Washington and Moscow back opposing sides in the Syrian war, with Russia's intervention in 2015 in support of the brutal Assad regime being widely seen as a turning point in the multi-front conflict.
The Syrian conflict began when the Baath regime, in power since 1963 and led by Assad, responded with military force to peaceful protests demanding democratic reforms, triggering an armed rebellion fuelled by mass defections from the Syrian army.
According to independent assessments, brutal tactics pursued mainly by the Russian-backed regime, which have included the use of chemical weapons, sieges, mass executions and torture against civilians, amount to war crimes.