Nearly 400,000 civilians are trapped as Syria’s government pounds the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta district with air raids and artillery.
On Tuesday morning, a five-hour “humanitarian pause” called by Russia came into effect to allow civilians to evacuate the area.
Here is what is happening – and why:
What is happening?
- Siege: Eastern Ghouta has been under siege by the Syrian government since 2013, and is the last rebel stronghold near the capital.
- Chronic food and medicine shortages have devastated Eastern Ghouta with severe cases of malnutrition.
- De-escalation zone: Turkey, Russia and Iran agreed in 2017 to designate Eastern Ghouta a “de-escalation zone”, in which Syrian and Russian fighter jets were expected not to fly.
- Relentless bombing: On Sunday, February 19, Syrian forces backed by Russian warplanes escalated the offensive on Eastern Ghouta with a relentless bombing that killed hundreds of people within days.
- The bombing, which Amnesty International said amounted to war crimes, has damaged or destroyed six hospitals and medical centres across the city, residents say.
- UN resolution: On Saturday, February 25, the UN Security Council – including Russia – voted in favour of a resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire “without delay”.
- Ground offensive: Also on Sunday, Syrian forces launched a ground offensive targetting areas on the edges of Eastern Ghouta to make it easier for their ground forces to advance.
- As of Monday, February 26, Syrian forces have “not been able to take an inch of territory” in Ghouta, Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr reported.
- Government forces have allegedly used mortar shells, barrel bombs, cluster bombs, and bunker-busting munitions.
- Chlorine gas: Syria’s Civil Defence rescuers said victims in Eastern Ghouta were showing symptoms “consistent with exposure to toxic chlorine gas”.
- Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described allegations of gas use “bogus stories”.
- Evacuation: Starting from Tuesday, civilians will be allowed to flee Eastern Ghouta through a “humanitarian corridor” during a daily five-hour pause announced by Russia.Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu made the announcement about the “pause”, saying it would run from 09:00 until 14:00 local time (07:00-12:00 GMT) daily.
Why Eastern Ghouta?
- Eastern Ghouta is about 10km east of central Damascus.
- Being so close to the capital makes it important for the Syria government to reclaim the area from the rebels.
- The 104-square-kilometre district is home to about 400,000 civilians, half of whom are children under the age of 18.
- In March, the civil war in Syriawill enter its 8th year, with more than 465,000 Syrians killed and over 12 million displaced from their homes.
|East Ghouta map – Feb 26 2018 [Al Jazeera]|
- As of Monday, 561 civilians have been killed in Eastern Ghouta, according to the death toll compiled by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
- 185 children and 109 women were killed in the past three months, according to Anadolu’s news agency reports.
- Syrian government officials say “terrorists” are using civilians as human shields.
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