UN condemns Syria starvation tactics, 'domination' of Eastern Ghouta


The battle for Eastern Ghouta has led to the "worst documented cases" of malnutrition in Syria's civil war, but was not simply a case of a harsh regime battling a pro-democracy insurgency, a leading UN rights investigator says.

The region outside Damascus and its nearly 400,000 inhabitants are mainly controlled by the two Islamist rebel groups Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman, who are fighting pro-government forces.

"They control the population in an authoritarian manner, in terms of obliging them to some traditional principles of religion, of customs," Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, who heads the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said. "It's not a sweet domination. It's an authoritarian domination," he told a press conference on Tuesday.

He presented the commission's latest report, which said that the government's use of starvation, hospital attacks, use of chemical weapons and cluster munitions amounted to war crimes in the besieged area.

"Entering its fifth year, the siege of Eastern Ghouta has been marked by increasingly cynical means and methods of warfare, which have led to the worst documented cases of malnutrition over the course of the Syrian conflict," the report said.

The rebels have also committed similar crimes, by shelling Damascus and killing dozens of civilians there, the commission added. Rebel retaliatory shelling hit several areas in the capital on Tuesday, killing three civilians and wounding 15, the state-run Syrian News agency (SANA) said.

Russia has pledged to let the insurgents and their families flee Eastern Ghouta, even as an offensive against the enclave kept up pace on Tuesday, including fresh airstrikes on the already battered area. Russia "guarantees the integrity of all insurgents and their family members who had decided to leave Eastern Ghouta," the Russian Defence Ministry said in a statement late on Monday. Russia has also ensured safe passage of a humanitarian convoy by international organisations to Douma, carrying 247 tons of cargo, the statement said, referring to a part of Eastern Ghouta.

However, Faylaq al-Rahman spokesman Wael Olwan said there would be no surrender. He accused Russia of trying to implement "a forced displacement" of the residents. "It is a crime about which we cannot be silent," he said. Moscow's warplanes are backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's ground forces in the offensive against Ghouta. The Syrian government has seized more than a third of the enclave in a month.

The United Nations called for a nationwide ceasefire on 24 February, which Security Council diplomats have accused Moscow of flouting by implementing a five-hour daily humanitarian ceasefire instead. An urgent meeting of the council to discuss the ceasefire behind closed doors is scheduled for Wednesday morning in New York, as requested by Britain and France. Some aid got in to Ghouta on Monday, even as heavy bombardments continued. The government blocked some aid from entering and the delivery was forced to end its distribution before fully unloading its goods, due to military operations.

Aid agencies say the delivery only had enough aid for some 27,000 people, less than 10 percent of the population. There are reports of a severe lack of medicines. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on all parties fighting in Syria to allow safe access for the next round of UN convoys scheduled to deliver supplies for 70,000 people in Douma on Thursday. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sharply criticised the UN, saying its truce resolution was not being implemented. He did not specifically name the Syrian or Russian governments. "Are the developments in Eastern Ghouta compatible with humanity? A decision has been made in the United Nations Security Council. Down with your decision!" Erdogan said in Ankara.

However, Erdogan pledged to press ahead with his own military's offensive in Afrin, a Kurdish enclave in the north-west. The tempo of the operation would increase, he said, vowing to "crush the heads of the terrorists." Turkey has repeatedly said it does not view Afrin as part of the UN call for a nationwide truce.

Linda Tom, a UN spokeswoman, said her organisation and the Red Cross were prepared to make another delivery to Eastern Ghouta, but safety was a concern. "The UN and partners continue to be ready to deliver the second part of aid to Douma on March 8 as planned should the conditions allow, but all security measures must be guaranteed in order for this to happen," Tom told journalists.    (dpa)

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