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New strikes hit Ghouta despite ceasefire call

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Wounded Syrian children are seen in a hospital in the besieged town of Douma in Eastern Ghouta on February 23, 2018. Reuters

BEIRUT (AFP) – Syria’s regime carried out new air strikes Sunday on the rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta despite a UN Security Council demand for a ceasefire “without delay”.

The strikes on Sunday morning included two on the outskirts of Douma, the main town in Eastern Ghouta, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Regime air strikes and artillery have been pounding the enclave near Damascus since February 18, with at least 519 dead since the bombing campaign was launched, according to the Observatory.

The Security Council on Saturday unanimously demanded a 30-day ceasefire to allow for humanitarian aid deliveries and medical evacuations. The measure did not specify when the truce would go into force beyond saying it should be “without delay.”

Rocket and artillery fire also hit at least three parts of Eastern Ghouta, including Douma, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.

Abdel Rahman said there were also clashes in the south of Eastern Ghouta between regime forces and fighters from the Jaish al-Islam rebel group. Fighting in the area is frequent so it was not immediately clear if the clashes represented a change on the ground.

After the council vote on Saturday, Syrian warplanes backed by Russian air power also reportedly launched new raids on a town in Eastern Ghouta, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

At least 41 civilians were killed in Saturday’s strikes, including eight children. Russia has denied taking part in the assault.

Quickly following up on the vote, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel was to speak by phone on Sunday with Russian President Vladimir Putin to push for the truce to take hold “in the coming days”, the Elysee palace said in a statement. To this end France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian will also go to Moscow on Tuesday.

The UN vote was initially expected to be held Thursday, but was repeatedly delayed as diplomats were locked in tough negotiations to avoid a veto from Russia, which is militarily supporting President Bashar Al-Assad.

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia rejected accusations of foot-dragging, saying that negotiations were needed to arrive at a demand for a ceasefire that was “feasible.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who has described Eastern Ghouta as “hell on Earth,” said the ceasefire must be “immediately” implemented.

To win Russia’s approval, language specifying that the ceasefire would start 72 hours after adoption was scrapped, replaced by “without delay,” and the term “immediate” was dropped in reference to aid deliveries and evacuations.

In another concession to Moscow, the ceasefire will not apply to operations against the Islamic State group or Al-Qaeda, along with “individuals, groups, undertakings and entities” associated with the terror groups.

That would allow the Syrian government offensive to continue against Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists in Idlib, the last province in Syria outside the control of Damascus.

Control of Eastern Ghouta is shared between two main Islamist factions, while Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate is also present in the area.

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