GENEVA >> Trucks laden with international aid edged into a besieged Damascus suburb today, delivering the first relief to its beleaguered and shellshocked residents in over three months, but only after government officials had removed many of the medical supplies.
As the convoy passed the last checkpoints to enter eastern Ghouta, the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva concluded an urgent debate on the crisis by passing a resolution that condemned the Syrian government’s ferocious, 2-week-old bombardment of that rebel-held enclave and called for an immediate end to hostilities.
Just hours before the limited aid delivery, the assault and the bloodshed continued in a pocket that the U.N. estimates still holds 393,000 people, the vast majority of them civilians; residents of eastern Ghouta reported relentless aerial bombardment and shelling Sunday and through Sunday night. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain, said Sunday’s bombing had pushed the death toll to 710 in an offensive that began on Feb. 18, while activists in eastern Ghouta estimated 783 dead, including 43 people killed Sunday, 31 of them in one town, Douma.
Syrian state media said seven people were injured this morning in a mortar attack on a military hospital in Damascus by fighters holed in up in eastern Ghouta who belong to the Nusra Front, a group affiliated with al-Qaida, and their allies.
The Human Rights Council condemned abuses by all parties, but focused particularly on the intensive bombardment by Syrian government forces and their allies, including alleged use of chemical weapons. Those responsible for the offensive should be held to account, it said.
The council’s resolution marked deepening international frustration and indignation at the assault on eastern Ghouta by the government and its allies, including Russia. The offensive is one of the most ferocious in Syria’s 7-year civil war, despite a Feb. 24 U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a 30-day cease-fire and immediate access for humanitarian agencies. There are suspicions that the government once again used chemical weapons, in the face of international condemnation.
Syria’s state news agency, Sana, said Monday that advancing government troops had taken control of around one-third of eastern Ghouta, after capturing farmland and several villages in the east of the enclave, and the towns of Utaya, Al Shifouniyah and Al Nashabiyah.
Loopholes in the Security Council resolution allowed for military operations to continue against terrorist groups. Syria and Russia both made clear they were determined to continue their assault to crush jihadi forces holding out in the enclave.
Russian aircraft alone bombed eastern Ghouta and Damascus at least 20 times a day between Feb. 14 and 18, Jason Mack, a senior official of the U.S. mission in Geneva, told the Human Rights Council on Monday.
Last week, Russia unilaterally announced a daily five-hour cease-fire to allow aid to enter eastern Ghouta along a designated “humanitarian corridor,” but for several days, no supply trucks entered the region and the fighting continued. Syria and Russia said that opposition shelling and sniper fire along the route were preventing aid deliveries; U.N. officials said the time allowed was insufficient to get aid past all the checkpoints, and accused Syrian officials of stalling approvals for aid convoys.
If Monday’s convoy to the town of Douma marked a breakthrough after months of siege, it also underscored the continued obstacles and uncertainty surrounding aid deliveries. The 46 trucks carried food parcels, flour and medical supplies, but only enough for 27,500 people, out of Douma’s population of 100,000.
International aid agencies are demanding unhindered and sustained access to be able to respond to the needs of the nearly 400,000 people in an enclave that has been largely isolated for years, and completely cut off for months. “We have some positive indications from all parties that we can go back with aid soon,” an International Red Cross spokeswoman, Ingy Sedky, said in a phone interview, but she cautioned that there was no official confirmation of further access.
Syrian government inspectors had stripped the convoy of many of the medical supplies that aid agencies had loaded. World Health Organization officials reported the items removed included all the trauma kits, surgical supplies, dialysis equipment and insulin.
And while the convoy brought medical staff into Douma, relief agency officials said there were no plans to bring any sick or injured patients out of eastern Ghouta. The U.N. lists more than 1,200 people as being in urgent need of evacuation for medical care that the enclave’s heavily bombed clinics can no longer provide.