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Chaos deepens in Syria enclave

Death toll for Damascus 5-day blitz hits 368

KAFR BATNA, Syria: A man carries a severely wounded Syrian at a make-shift hospital in Kafr Batna following Syrian government bombardments on the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus. — AFP

DOUMA: The Syrian regime rained rockets and bombs on Eastern Ghouta yesterday, killing another 19 civilians as international pressure mounted to stop the carnage in the rebel-held enclave. Calls for a humanitarian truce in one of the bloodiest episodes of Syria’s seven-year-old conflict went unheeded as the death toll for Damascus’s five-day blitz rose to 368. The United Nations chief said the bloodshed wreaked by the aerial campaign had turned Eastern Ghouta into “hell on earth”, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for an end to the “massacre”. Residents huddled in basements as government forces pounded the besieged enclave with rockets and bombs, turning towns into fields of ruins and even hitting hospitals.
According to Doctors Without Borders, 13 of the facilities it supports in Eastern Ghouta were damaged or destroyed in three days, leaving remaining staff with very little to save the hundreds of wounded brought to them every day. In the hospital mortuary in Douma, the main town in the enclave just east of Damascus, bodies wrapped in white shrouds were already lining up on the floor, two of them children. Little pools of blood dotted the way to the hospital, where most of the victims of the sustained rocket fire unleashed by government troops yesterday were taken.

Nowhere safe
“The rocket fire hasn’t stopped this morning. Around 200 ground-to-ground rockets struck Douma alone,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.Morning rain appeared to initially keep warplanes away but the sky cleared by midday and jets, some of them Russian according to the Observatory, soon returned. Russia has so far denied direct involvement in the assault on Ghouta but the pro-government Syrian newspaper Al-Watan reported yesterday that Russian warplanes and advisers had joined the battle.

Regime and allied forces have been massing around the enclave, in which an estimated 400,000 people live, ahead of a likely ground offensive to flush out holdout Islamist and jihadist groups. The brief respite provided by the rain yesterday encouraged some residents to venture out of their basements and shelters, to buy food, check on their property or enquire about their relatives and neighbors. In the town of Hammuriyeh, a queue had formed outside a shop as starving residents tried to stock up but another rocket sowed panic and sent everybody back to their shelters. In Douma, a young boy tried to peddle lighters on the street but rocket fire quickly forced him to scamper back to cover.

An AFP correspondent saw rescuers known as the “White Helmets” forced to stop their efforts to retrieve a wounded woman from the rubble of a collapsed home when air strikes resumed. When they ventured back to the site, the woman was dead. The indiscriminate bombardment and the strikes on medical facilities sparked global outrage but few concrete options emerged to stop the bloodletting. “The killing of children, the destruction of hospitals-all that amounts to a massacre that must be condemned and which must be countered with a clear no,” Merkel said. Russia has asked for a special meeting of the UN Security Council and the Red Cross has demanded it be allowed to enter the besieged enclave to help overwhelmed doctors and nurses to treat the wounded.

The aid community voiced its frustration as the world appeared once again powerless to stop a conflict that has left almost 350,000 dead in seven years and caused destruction rarely seen since World War II. Humanitarian agencies are “sickened that no matter how many times they’ve raised the alarm, taken the step of speaking out, called on the Security Council to do something, the violence and brutality will sink to new lows,” a statement by the Syria INGO Regional Forum said. Talks for a deal between the regime and the armed groups controlling Ghouta appear to have stalled.

‘Stop Ghouta violence’
Meanwhile, Gulf states yesterday urged an end to the deadly assault on Syria’s rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, as rival Saudi Arabia and Qatar joined ranks in calling for an immediate truce. Regional titan Riyadh, which leads a four-state Arab bloc boycotting Qatar over accusations of ties to both Sunni Islamists and Shiite Iran, demanded the regime of Bashar Al-Assad end the violence that has left more than 300 people dead and sparked international outrage.

The statement however stopped short of outright condemnation, appealing instead to Damascus to adhere to UN Security Council resolution 2254, which calls for a nationwide ceasefire and a political transition. “We stress the need for the Syrian regime to stop the violence, to allow in humanitarian aid, and to take seriously the path of a political solution to the crisis,” the Saudi foreign ministry said on Twitter. “We are concerned over the continuation of Syrian regime attacks on Eastern Ghouta and the impact on civilians there.”

The UAE, a military ally of Saudi Arabia that is also boycotting Qatar, expressed concern at the escalation of violence and called for an “immediate truce” to halt the bloodshed and protect civilians. It also called for allowing humanitarian and medical aid to civilians. Rival Qatar, however, slammed the assault as an outright “massacre”. “The State of Qatar expresses its strong… condemnation of the massacres and intensive aerial bombardments carried out by the forces of the Syrian regime,” read a statement released by Qatar’s foreign ministry. Gulf states, mainly Saudi Arabia, have been key backers of Syrian opposition groups fighting President Bashar Al-Assad and Riyadh has hosted meetings of the opposition. – Agencies

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