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Violence Shatters 'Pause' In Syria's Eastern Ghouta

Smoke billows following Syrian government bombardments on Kafr Batna, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus, on February 22.
Smoke billows following Syrian government bombardments on Kafr Batna, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus, on February 22.

The first day of a Russian-called "humanitarian pause" in Syria's rebel-held eastern Ghouta region has been marred by violence and complaints that the cessation of hostilities is too short to move in aid and remove injured civilians.

Shortly after the five-hour truce called by Russia took effect on February 27, there were reports of air strikes, rocket fire, and mortar shelling in the besieged enclave, which is near the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Syrian activists said the government carried out a number air and artillery strikes in eastern Ghouta, while Damascus and Moscow accused rebels of shelling an evacuation route opened to allow civilians to leave the area.

The United Nations said the continued fighting made relief operations impossible.

"Clearly the situation on the ground is not such that convoys can go in or medical evacuations can go out," Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), said in Geneva.

"It is impossible to bring a humanitarian convoy in five hours," International Committee of the Red Cross Middle East Director Robert Mardini said. "We have a long experience of bringing aid across frontlines in Syria, and we know that it may take up to one day to simply pass checkpoints.... Then you need to offload the goods."

In Washington, U.S. General Joe Votel, head of the military's Central Command, told a House of Representatives committee on February 27 that Russia was acting as "both arsonist and firefighter, fueling tensions among all parties in Syria."

"Either Russia has to admit it is not capable or it does not want to play a role in ending the Syrian conflict. I think their role is incredibly destabilizing at this point," Votel added.

Bombardment in eastern Ghouta by Syrian government forces has killed more than 560 people over the past nine days, according to activists.

On February 26, Russia announced that a daily "humanitarian pause" would run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. local time.

It also said a "humanitarian corridor" would be established to help civilians leave the besieged area where some 393,000 of them are trapped, and to evacuate the sick and wounded.

The announcement came after the UN Security Council on February 24 passed a resolution demanding a 30-day cease-fire "without delay" to allow aid deliveries and medical evacuations in Syria’s conflict areas.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on February 27 that air strikes and shells hit several towns in eastern Ghouta. A Syrian military source was quoted as denying the report.

Meanwhile, the Russian military and Syrian state media said that a "humanitarian corridor" opened to allow civilians to leave the area was being shelled.

Russian General Major Yury Yevtushenko accused rebels holed up in Ghouta of holding civilians as hostages.

A rebel faction in Ghouta denied preventing civilians from leaving the enclave or shelling an evacuation route.

Russia and Iran have given Assad's government crucial support throughout the seven-year war in Syria, which began with a government crackdown on peaceful protests. Moscow helped turn the tide of the conflict in Assad's favor by launching a campaign of air strikes in 2015 and stepping up its military presence on the ground.

On February 26, the United States urged Russia to use its influence to secure a monthlong cease-fire across Syria.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert tweeted that "the Syrian regime, and its Russian and Iranian backers, continue to attack” eastern Ghouta, “terrorizing hundreds of thousands of civilians with air strikes, artillery, rockets, and a looming ground attack."

"The regime's use of chlorine gas as a weapon only intensified the misery of the civilian population," Nauert also wrote, in an apparent reference to allegations of a Syrian chemical attack on Ghouta over the weekend.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier in the day said that reports of an alleged chemical attack on the Damascus suburb were "fake stories," despite videos and photos of alleged victims of the attack shown in the media.

The United Nations and European countries called on Russia to expand the announced five-hour pause into a longer-lasting truce.

Britain’s Deputy UN Ambassador Jonathan Allen said Russia was playing "cynical games" and that its announcement shows that "Russia can implement if it chooses to. If it’s able to do a five-hour pause, it’s able to do a 24-hour pause."

"Five hours is better than no hours, but we would like to see any cessation of hostilities be extended," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

With reporting by AFP, AP, and Reuters