UN Demands Syria Ceasefire as Air Strikes Pound Rebel-held Areas

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Syrian children clean up their shop from debris following reported regime air strikes in the rebel-held town of Kafr Batna, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 6, 2018
Syrian children in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 6, 2018Credit: AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA

The United Nations called on Tuesday for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Syria of at least one month as heavy air strikes were reported to have killed at least 30 people in rebel-held areas near Damascus and in the northwest.

Separately, UN war crimes experts said in Geneva that they were investigating multiple reports of bombs allegedly containing banned chlorine being used against civilians in the rebel-held towns of Saraqeb in the northwestern province of Idlib and Douma in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.

In a statement, Paulo Pinheiro, head of the International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said an ongoing Syrian government siege of Eastern Ghouta "involve(s) the international crimes of indiscriminate bombardment and deliberate starvation of the civilian population".

Reports of air strikes hitting at least three hospitals in the past 48 hours "make a mockery of so-called "de-escalation zones", Pinheiro said, referring to a Russian-led truce deal for rebel-held territory that has failed to stop fighting there.

The latest air strikes killed 25 people in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, a day after bombardments of the same pocket killed 30 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Air strikes in rebel-held Idlib killed six.

UN envoys called for a cessation of hostilities to enable humanitarian aid deliveries, and the evacuation of the sick and wounded, listing seven areas of concern including northern Syria's Kurdish-led Afrin region being targeted by a Turkish offensive.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, helped by Iran-backed militias and the Russian air force, is pursuing military campaigns against insurgents in the last major redoubts of territory held by his opponents in western Syria.

There were air strikes on towns across the Eastern Ghouta, including Douma where an entire building was brought down, a local witness said. In Idlib, where government forces and their allies are also on the offensive, at least five people were killed in the village of Tarmala, the Observatory said.

"Today there is no safe area at all. This is a key point people should know: there is no safe space," Siraj Mahmoud, the head of the Civil Defence rescue service in opposition-held rural Damascus, told Reuters.

"Right now we have people under rubble, the targeting is ongoing, warplanes on residential neighbourhoods," he said.

In a statement, the UN representatives noted that humanitarian needs were rising in Eastern Ghouta, where people had not received inter-agency assistance since late November.

"Meanwhile, fighting and retaliatory shelling from all parties are impacting civilians in this region and Damascus, causing scores of deaths and injuries," said their statement, released before the latest casualty tolls emerged on Tuesday.

"In Idlib, the military operations resulted in increased casualties and movement of civilians to safer areas. Some of them have been forced to move several times to escape fighting," they said, noting that two pro-government villages in Idlib also continued to be besieged by rebels.

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