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UN: 'Hell on earth' in Syria's eastern Ghouta must end

UN human rights chief Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein said air strikes on eastern Ghouta were continuing on Monday morning.

A Syrian man carries two children in the rubble of buildings following regime air strikes on the rebel-held besieged town of Douma in the eastern Ghouta region, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on 7 February 2018. Picture: AFP

GENEVA – United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on Monday for warring sides to implement a 30-day ceasefire across Syria, in line with an appeal by major powers at the weekend.

UN aid agencies are ready to deliver life-saving aid and evacuate critically wounded from the rebel-held Damascus enclave of eastern Ghouta, where 400,000 people have been living under siege, Guterres said.

UN human rights chief Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein said air strikes on eastern Ghouta were continuing on Monday morning.

Several people suffered symptoms consistent with exposure to chlorine gas in the rebel-held eastern Ghouta district near Damascus on Sunday, and one child was killed, the health authorities in the opposition-held area said in a statement.

Victims, ambulance drivers and others smelt chlorine after “an enormous explosion” in the eastern Ghouta in the area of al-Shayfouniya, said the statement issued by the local branch of the opposition Syrian Interim Government’s Ministry of Health.

“At least 18 victims were treated with oxygen nebulising sessions.”

The Syrian army could not immediately be reached for comment. The Syrian government has consistently denied using chemical weapons in the war that will soon enter its eighth year.

The Russian defence ministry, which backs the Syrian government in the war, on Sunday accused rebels of preparing to use toxic agents in eastern Ghouta so they could later accuse Damascus of employing chemical weapons.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based organisation that reports on the war, confirmed a child had died from suffocation in eastern Ghouta but said it could not confirm if poison gas had been used, its director told Reuters by phone.

Video circulated on social media networks purporting to show the aftermath of the attack depicted a child’s corpse wrapped in a blue shroud, and several bare-chested men and young boys appearing to struggle for breath, with some holding nebulisers to their mouths and noses.

Eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel stronghold near Damascus, has been targeted in a fierce government offensive that got underway last week.

The UN Security Council on Saturday demanded a 30-day truce across Syria. The Observatory said Sunday’s bombardment of eastern Ghouta was less intense than last week, but 14 people were still killed.

In recent weeks, the United States has accused Syria of repeatedly using chlorine gas as a weapon. Rebel-held areas of the Ghouta region were hit in a major chemical attack in 2013.

Last year, a joint inquiry by the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) found the Syrian government was responsible for a 4 April 2017 attack using the banned nerve agent sarin in the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, killing dozens of people.

The inquiry had previously found that Syrian government forces were responsible for three chlorine gas attacks in 2014 and 2015 and that Islamic State militants used mustard gas.

The Russian defence ministry said rebel leaders were “preparing a provocation with employment of toxic material, aiming at accusing the governmental forces of using chemical weapons against civilian population”.

The statement was released by a Russian ceasefire monitoring centre, which is run by the Russian military, and published on the defence ministry’s website.

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