Russia said on Monday it would establish an evacuation corridor and implement a five-hour daily truce to allow people to leave Syria’s eastern Ghouta, after a UN Security Council resolution demanding a 30-day ceasefire across the entire country.
It appeared to make no mention, however, of allowing relief supplies to enter the territory, where 400,000 people are living under siege and bombardment, Reuters reported.
Over the past week, Syria’s army and its allies have subjected the rebel-held enclave near Damascus to one of the heaviest bombardments of the seven-year war, killing hundreds.
On Sunday, health authorities there said several people had symptoms consistent with chlorine gas exposure. On Monday, rescue workers and a monitoring group said seven small children had been killed by air and artillery strikes in one town.
“Eastern Ghouta cannot wait, it is high time to stop this hell on earth,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, calling for implementation of the ceasefire.
Fighting has raged across Syria since Saturday’s resolution, as Turkey presses its offensive against a Kurdish militia in Afrin, rival rebel groups fight each other in Idlib and a US-led coalition targets Daesh in the east..
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was cited by the RIA news agency as saying President Vladimir Putin had ordered a ceasefire in eastern Ghouta from 9 am to 2 pm each day, and the creation of a “humanitarian corridor”, reported Reuters.
Major-General Yuri Yevtushenko, head of the Russian peace and reconciliation center in Syria, said the measures, decided in agreement with Syrian forces, were intended to help civilians leave and to evacuate the sick and wounded.
RIA’s report of his remarks made no direct mention of letting relief supplies in, but quoted Yevtushenko accusing militants of “holding hundreds hostage, including women and children, and victimizing residents, refusing to allow them to leave”.
The International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva said it welcomed any measure that allowed “those who wish to leave to do so, of their free will”, as well as medical evacuations.
But spokeswoman Iolanda Jaquemet said much more was required: “The need remains for humanitarian convoys to move in with vital supplies: medicines, medical supplies, food, material to purify the water. This is a place with up to 400,000 people and humanitarian needs are huge.”
Linda Tom, a UN humanitarian spokeswoman in Damascus, called for the Council resolution to be fully implemented “so that the U.N. and its partners can deliver humanitarian assistance to those in need, particularly to those in eastern Ghouta”.
She said at least 30 people had been killed in Ghouta in the previous 48 hours.
Russia, along with Iran and Shi‘ite militias, is a major backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and it joined the war on his side in 2015, helping him claw back important areas.
Reuters reported that Mohamad Alloush, political chief of one of eastern Ghouta’s biggest rebel factions, said the Syrian army and its allies had launched “a sweeping ground assault” after the UN resolution.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said allegations that the Syrian government was responsible for any chemical attack were aimed at sabotaging the truce.
The Syrian government has consistently denied using chemical weapons in the war, which will soon enter its eighth year having killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced half of Syria’s pre-war population of about 23 million from their homes.