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End to Syria ‘massacre’ urged as death toll mounts in fresh bombardment

At least 335 civilians believed to have been killed since Sunday in besieged enclave of eastern Ghouta

Syrians respond following airstrikes and shelling by Syrian government forces in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, Syria, in this photo, released February 21, 2018, by the Syrian anti-government activist group Ghouta Media Center. (Ghouta Media Center via AP)
Syrians respond following airstrikes and shelling by Syrian government forces in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, Syria, in this photo, released February 21, 2018, by the Syrian anti-government activist group Ghouta Media Center. (Ghouta Media Center via AP)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday called for an end to the “massacre” in Syria after fresh airstrikes on a rebel-held enclave in the war-torn country killed another 13 people.

Condemning the Syrian regime for targeting “its own people,” Merkel said, “The killing of children, the destruction of hospitals — all that amounts to a massacre that must be condemned and which must be countered with a clear ‘no.'”

The UN human rights office said Wednesday that at least 346 people have been killed in eastern Ghouta since the Syrian government and its allies escalated an offensive on February 4. By an AFP count, at least 335 civilians are thought to have been killed since Sunday in the besieged enclave near Damascus as regime forces intensified their bombardment of the site.

This photo released on Wednesday, February 21, 2018 provided by the Syrian anti-government activist group Ghouta Media Center, shows two Syrian kids who were wounded during airstrikes and shelling by Syrian government forces, sitting at a makeshift hospital in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, Syria. (Ghouta Media Center via AP)

On the eve of a European Union summit, Merkel told the German parliament that the dire situation in Syria requires the bloc to seek “to play a bigger role” in ending the crisis.

“That is something that we as Europeans need to work towards,” she said.

At the same time, Merkel also urged Iran and Russia — both allies of Bashar Assad’s regime — to play their part in ending the killing.

“We must do everything to find an end to this massacre,” she said, adding that German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel would press the case with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

Meanwhile, Sweden and Kuwait called for a vote Thursday on a UN resolution ordering a 30-day cease-fire throughout Syria to enable delivery of humanitarian aid to millions of people in acute need, and the evacuation of the critically sick and wounded.

But the Security Council resolution would exempt attacks directed at extremists from the Islamic State group, al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front — targets the Syrian government and its Russian allies say they are pursuing.

In this photo, released on Wednesday, February 21, 2018 and provided by the Syrian anti-government activist group Ghouta Media Center, Syrians gather next to a destroyed building that was attacked by Syrian government forces in airstrikes in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, Syria. (Ghouta Media Center via AP)

The proposed resolution, put in a final form Wednesday, expresses “outrage at the unacceptable levels of violence” and attacks on civilians in several parts of Syria, particularly in Idlib governorate and the rebel-held Damascus suburbs of eastern Ghouta.

Whether Russia uses its veto or abstains in a vote on the resolution remains to be seen.

Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia called a 30-day ceasefire unrealistic, and diplomats said during negotiations on the text he argued that it couldn’t be enforced. Instead, he proposed a change that would have the parties agree to a ceasefire themselves which was rejected by the sponsors, the diplomats said.

“We cannot simply decide that there is a ceasefire,” Nebenzia said Wednesday in an audio recording from Russia’s UN Mission. “That’s a long and complex process to achieve. Cessations cannot be established by putting a word in the resolution.”

Soon after a final draft of the resolution was circulated, Nebenzia called for an open Security Council meeting Thursday on eastern Ghouta. Some diplomats complained privately that Russia was trying to delay action on the 30-day cease-fire resolution.

Nebenzia told the council it’s important that all sides in the conflict present their understanding of the situation in eastern Ghouta “and come up the ways of getting out of the situation there.”

In this photo released on Wednesday, February 21, 2018, provided by the Syrian Civil Defense group known as the White Helmets, a member of the Syrian Civil Defense group, center, searches for victims under the rubble of a destroyed house that was attacked by Syrian government forces in an airstrike in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, Syria. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

Russia understands “there are terrorists there who the Syrian army is fighting and the terrorists are shelling heavily Damascus — and that has been neglected,” he said.

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres earlier urged an immediate suspension of “all war activities” in eastern Ghouta, where he said 400,000 people are living “in hell on earth.”

The UN chief said a suspension of fighting must allow for humanitarian aid to reach all in need and the evacuation of some 700 people needing urgent medical treatment.

“This is a human tragedy that is unfolding in front of our eyes and I don’t think we can let things go on in this horrendous way,” he said.

US Ambassador Nikki Haley supported the UN chief saying “it is time for us to realize that we can’t continue to look away.”

Later, she accused “the barbaric Assad regime” of attacking men, women and children.

“It is simply preposterous to claim that these attacks on civilians have anything to do with fighting terrorism,” Haley said in a statement. “The Security Council must move to adopt a resolution establishing a ceasefire.”

But since the Syrian conflict began nearly seven years ago, the Security Council has been deeply divided, with Russia backing Assad’s government and the US, Britain and France supporting the opposition. The result has been paralysis and inaction.

The proposed Syria humanitarian resolution drafted by Sweden and Kuwait expresses “grave distress” that more than 13.1 million people in Syria need urgent humanitarian assistance and “outrage” at the escalating violence and lack of access to civilians in need.

It calls for a ceasefire throughout Syria to begin 72 hours after the resolution’s adoption. It states that 48 hours after a cease-fire starts humanitarian convoys must be allowed “unimpeded and sustained access” and the UN and its partners must be allowed to evacuate urgent cases.

The draft resolution also calls for the immediate lifting of sieges including in eastern Ghouta, Yarmouk, Foua and Kefraya.

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