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Violence halts aid to Syria’s Ghouta – Russian military plane crash kills 32

A wounded Syrian boy receives treatment at a makeshift hospital following reported government bombardments on the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on Monday. (AFP)

BEIRUT, March 6, (AP): The first aid delivery in weeks to reach the besieged eastern suburbs of Damascus was cut short after Syrian government forces began shelling the area while aid workers were still inside, a local council said Tuesday, amid a renewed escalation in the government’s deadly aerial and ground campaign.

Aid trucks had to leave before they could finish unloading supplies on Monday, as the eastern Ghouta suburbs suffered their worst day of violence since the UN Security Council demanded a 30-day cease-fire for Syria.

The Syrian American Medical Society charity, which supports hospitals in eastern Ghouta, said 79 people were killed in shelling and airstrikes, as the government, supported by Russia’s military, pushed its assault on the rebelheld suburbs, where the UN estimates close to 400,000 people are trapped under unmanageable levels of violence.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said 80 civilians were killed on Monday. The Security Council resolution, which passed unanimously on Feb 25, has gone unheeded. Monday’s aid shipment was the first to enter eastern Ghouta amid weeks of a crippling siege and a government assault that has killed close to 800 civilians since Feb 18. Aid agencies, however, said Syrian authorities removed basic health supplies, including trauma, surgical kits and insulin, from the convoys before they set off.

The UN said airstrikes and shelling in eastern Ghouta and the shelling of Damascus continued for hours while the convoy was unloading supplies. “After nearly nine hours inside, the decision was made to leave for security reasons and to avoid jeopardizing the safety of humanitarian teams on the ground,” said Jens Laerke, deputy spokesperson for the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. As a result, 14 of the 46 trucks in the convoy were not able to fully offload critical humanitarian supplies.

Of the 14, four were partially offloaded, he said. Laerke said the team found a desperate situation for people who have endured months without access to humanitarian aid. “Food for civilians was in short supply or prohibitively expensive and high rates of acute malnutrition were observed,” he said. The violence called into question future aid deliveries. Another aid convoy is scheduled to enter eastern Ghouta on Thursday, but Laerke said security measures must be guaranteed for this to happen. The International Committee for the Red Cross also confirmed that its joint convoy with the United Nations had to leave before offloading all its supplies on account of the deteriorating security situation Monday.

Ingy Sedky, the ICRC spokeswoman in Syria, said most of the aid from a 46-truck convoy was delivered to the town of Douma in eastern Ghouta but the mission was cut short before the rest of the supplies could be unloaded. Iyad Abdelaziz, a member of the Douma Local Council, said nine aid trucks had to leave the area after government shelling and airstrikes intensified in the evening. Airstrikes continued Tuesday. The opposition’s Syrian Civil Defense search-and-rescue group reported at least nine people were killed in airstrikes on the town of Jisreen, in eastern Ghouta.

The group, also known as the White Helmets, added that two of its volunteers, and 28 others, suffered difficulties breathing following shelling on the town of Hammouriyeh on Monday evening. It accused the government of using “poison gas.” The Observatory reported 18 people suffered breathing difficulties, without attributing a cause. It was the eighth allegation of chlorine gas use reported by the Syrian American Medical Society this year.

The reports could not be independently confirmed, and Russia used its Security Council veto to freeze the work of a UN body investigating such reports earlier this year. Still, the allegations could provoke a response from Washington, which says it could take military action against the Syrian government for continued chemical weapons use against its own people.

The Syrian government, through the SANA state news agency, denied using chemical weapons in its eastern Ghouta offensive. The convoy that reached Douma on Monday carried only a fraction of the relief needed for the estimated 400,000 people trapped under the government’s siege. The UN’s humanitarian office said the convoy carried food for 27,500 people. But it said the Syrian government offloaded 70 percent of the health supplies, including trauma and surgical kits and insulin, before allowing the convoy to enter eastern Ghouta. The government routinely removes lifesaving medical supplies from aid convoys, in a pattern of denying such aid to civilians living in opposition areas.

UN officials have complained for years about such actions by the Syrian government. Russia’s Defense Ministry said it was extending an offer to allow armed rebels to leave eastern Ghouta with their families and weapons. Russia has been a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, helping him turn the tide of the bloody civil war in his favor. Meanwhile, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said the country plans to establish camps in nine locations in northern Syria to house people displaced by fighting amid Ankara’s offensive against Syrian Kurdish fighters. Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said on Tuesday that the camps would be built in a zone controlled by Turkish- backed forces, as well as in Idlib province where Turkish forces are trying to establish a “de-escalation zone” under an agreement reached between Turkey, Russia and Iran. Aksoy said the camps would host a total of 170,000 people.

Plane crashes
A Russian military cargo plane crashed as it was descending to land at an air base in Syria on Tuesday, killing all 32 people onboard, the Russian Defense Ministry said. The Russian military said an An-26, with 26 passengers and six crew members onboard, crashed just 500 meters (1,600 feet) from the runway.

The military blamed the crash on a technical error. Russia, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, leases the Hemeimeem military base in Syria, near the Mediterranean coast. The base is far from the front lines of the conflict, but came under shelling in December. The Russian military insisted the cargo plane did not come under fire, while saying it would conduct a full investigation.

The military did not immediately identify the victims. President Vladimir Putin offered his condolences to the families of those killed in the crash after receiving a briefing by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, the Kremlin said in a statement on Tuesday. The Interfax news agency quoted a spokeswoman for Russia’s Investigative Committee, which handles highprofile cases, as saying Russian investigators have been dispatched to Syria to look into the crash.

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