Monitors report at least 35 civilian deaths in Assad strike
SAQBA, Syria – Agence France-Presse
Fresh regime strikes on Syria’s besieged rebel-held enclave near Damascus killed 35 civilians on Feb. 6, according to monitors.
The bloodshed came a day after another 31 civilians were killed in Eastern Ghouta and as the United Nations pleaded for a truce in the seven-year-old conflict to allow for aid deliveries.
Fighting also raged in the northwestern province of Idlib, where the U.N. said the violence “made a mockery” of the de-escalation zones agreed last year in a bid to pave the way for an end to the war.
The latest casualties in Ghouta, on paper also a de-escalation zone, came as Washington threatened military action over the reported use of chemical weapons in the enclave, which regime and allied forces have besieged since 2013.
The death toll rose from an initial report of 16 “because the strikes [were] continuing - some new victims died in Douma and some critically wounded people died of their wounds,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman added that few rebels were among the dead because they rarely left their tunnels and had better protection from air strikes than civilians, estimated to number around 400,000 in Ghouta.
In apparent retaliation, rockets were fired on Damascus’s Bab al-Touma neighborhood, killing three civilians, the state news agency SANA reported.
Regime attacks involving suspected chlorine-filled munitions on Ghouta have also been on the up in recent weeks.
The U.S. State Department said on Feb. 5 that it had recorded six suspected chemical attacks in Syria in the past 30 days.
Washington, which last year launched cruise missiles on a regime airfield in retaliation for a nerve agent attack in Khan Sheikhun that killed scores of people, has threatened more military action.
France last month blacklisted companies and nationals it said had links to Syria’s alleged chemical program.
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley clashed with her Russian counterpart at a meeting of the Security Council on Feb. 5 after proposing a statement condemning Damascus “in the strongest terms.”
Russia, Assad’s main backer, retorted that “no perpetrators have been identified” and accused the United States of orchestrating a “propaganda campaign” against the Syrian government.
The U.N. said it was looking into the reports of chemical attacks and condemned what it described as an escalation in violence in Ghouta and Idlib.
“Over the last 48 hours, the scale and ferocity of attacks has increased dramatically,” the UN-mandated Independent International Commission of Inquiry said in a statement.
The U.N. commission said at least three hospitals were hit in recent strikes and shelling in Idlib.
“These reports are extremely troubling, and make a mockery of the so-called ‘de-escalation zones’ intended to protect civilians from such bombardment,” said Paulo Pinheiro, chair of the Commission.
The U.N. said existing agreements on the delivery of aid were not being honored and stressed that “if access was granted, three convoys could be dispatched each week, reaching over 700,000 people in these areas in two months.”
While the fighting is abating in some parts of the country, the humanitarian crisis is still in full swing and aid groups predict a further 1.5 million people will be displaced in 2018.