Civilian death toll over 400 in five-day assault on Damascus enclave of Eastern Ghouta

AFP-JIJI

Fresh bombardment on Eastern Ghouta killed dozens Thursday, bringing the number of dead civilians in a five-day assault by the Syrian government to more than 400.

Mounting calls for a humanitarian truce in one of the bloodiest episodes of Syria’s seven-year conflict went unheeded as 46 more people were killed by airstrikes and rocket fire.

Regime-backer Russia said there was “no agreement” at the U.N. Security Council on a 30-day cease-fire for Syria and presented amendments to a draft resolution that would allow aid deliveries and the evacuation of civilians from besieged Eastern Ghouta.

As diplomats wrangled over a U.N. vote, people huddled in basements while government forces pounded the enclave with rockets and bombs, turning towns into fields of ruins and even hitting hospitals.

Aid group Doctors Without Borders said 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.

“Five days of airstrikes and intense artillery fire by the regime and its Russian ally have killed 403 civilians, including 95 children,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Morning rain appeared to initially keep warplanes away on Thursday 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 on Thursday 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.

“We are 14 women and children living in a room that is 10 feet wide, with no toilet and nowhere to wash,” said 53-year-old Umm Abdo, who joined a large group in the basement of a school in Arbin.

The brief respite provided by the rain on Thursday encouraged some residents to venture out of their basements and shelters, to buy food, check on their property or inquire 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 airstrikes 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,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

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,” said the Syria INGO Regional Forum.

At the UN, Russian ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said sponsors Sweden and Kuwait were requesting a vote on the cease-fire plan even though they are “fully aware there is no agreement on it.”

The Security Council needs to reach a “feasible” agreement on a cease-fire and not take a decision that would be “populistic” and “severed from reality,” he said.

Talks for a deal between the regime and the armed groups controlling Ghouta appear to have stalled.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during a press conference in Belgrade that jihadist fighters in Ghouta had rejected an evacuation deal.

“A few days ago, our military in Syria suggested to the fighters that they withdraw peacefully from Eastern Ghouta, like the evacuation of fighters and their families that was organized in East Aleppo,” he said.

The head of the defense committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament said Thursday that more than 200 news types of weapons were tested as part of his country’s military support to the regime of President Bashar Assad.

“It’s not an accident that today they are coming to us from many directions to purchase our weapons, including countries that are not our allies,” he said.