A unilateral five-hour cease-fire decreed by Russia to pause the violence around a besieged suburb east of Damascus failed on Tuesday to stop the fighting, permit the delivery of aid or encourage any civilians to escape. BEIRUT —
Moscow said it was committed to continue the observance of a daily truce between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. to allow aid to enter and civilians to leave the besieged Eastern Ghouta area.
But aid agencies said the five-hour pause was too short to organize the delivery of food and medicine for 350,000 people across a front line in a war zone. Civilians said they were too afraid of the ongoing bombardments and of what may await them behind government lines once they escaped the area.
Though the bombardments lessened during the hours of the truce, mortars landed near a humanitarian corridor opened by the Syrian government on the eastern edge of the enclave, and there was scattered mortar fire elsewhere as well. Rebels and the Syrian government traded accusations for the violations, with the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) saying “terrorists” had targeted the crossing to prevent civilians from fleeing.
The five-hour daily “humanitarian pause” called for by Russia appeared to intend to meet halfway the demand of Saturday’s United Nations security resolution for an immediate halt to all fighting across Syria, including Eastern Ghouta, which has been the focus of a renewed government offensive for the past 10 days.
Hundreds of people have been killed, most of them civilians, since a surge of intensified airstrikes began Feb. 19, as the government renewed a push to subdue the last major rebel stronghold near the capital. The scenes of bloodshed and civilian suffering, relayed in photographs and videos by activists inside the besieged enclave, spurred the effort at the United Nations to secure a 30-day truce.
The rebels have struck back, firing volleys of mortars into Damascus and killing at least 36 people in the capital, according to the pro-government daily al-Watan. Mortars fired on Tuesday injured 17 people in the Damascus area, SANA reported.
The aerial bombardments eased during the five-hour truce but resumed within minutes after 2 p.m.
“There were helicopters, aircraft, rockets and all kind of bombing,” said Samira, a resident of the town of Douma in the Ghouta enclave who wanted to be identified only by her first name to protect her safety. “So no one could get out of their basements to get to the humanitarian corridors.”
Regardless, “people didn’t believe what they said about the corridors,” she said. “There is no trust between the people of Ghouta and the regime. They don’t trust that if they get out, [government forces] won’t take them and put them in detention.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross, one of the aid agencies involved in the effort to get supplies to Ghouta, said it welcomed any pause. But it described the five-hour window as insufficient and said any evacuation of civilians would have to be accompanied by agreements for their protection.
“It is impossible to bring a humanitarian convoy in five hours,” said Robert Mardini, the ICRC’s Middle East director. “We have a long experience of bringing aid across front lines in Syria, and we know that it may take up to one day to simply pass checkpoints, despite the previous agreement of all parties. Then you need to offload the goods.”
He added: “In the past, we have had to spend the night in certain locations, despite the security risks to ourselves, as there was no other way to bring lifesaving aid to those in need.”