Russia offers rebels safe passage out of Syria's Eastern Ghouta

Russia's military has offered to guarantee safe passage out of Syria's Eastern Ghouta for rebel fighters and their families. (AFP)
Updated 06 March 2018
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Russia offers rebels safe passage out of Syria's Eastern Ghouta

MOSCOW/BEIRUT: The Russian military has offered Syrian rebels safe passage out of eastern Ghouta, setting out a deal by which the opposition would surrender its last major stronghold near Damascus to President Bashar al-Assad.
The Russian defence ministry said rebels could leave with their families and personal weapons through a secure corridor out of eastern Ghouta, where Moscow-backed government forces are making rapid gains in a fierce assault.
The Russian proposal did not specify where the rebels would go, but the terms echo previous deals by which insurgents have ceded ground to Assad and been given safe passage to other opposition-held territory near the Turkish border.
"The Russian Reconciliation Centre guarantees the immunity of all rebel fighters who take the decision to leave eastern Ghouta with personal weapons and together with their families,” said the defence ministry statement.
Vehicles would "be provided, and the entire route will be guarded", it added.
The spokesman for one of the main rebel groups in eastern Ghouta, Failaq al-Rahman, said Russia was "insisting on military escalation and imposing forced displacement" on the people of eastern Ghouta, where the United Nations has said some 400,000 are living.
The Syrian army has captured more than a third of the enclave in recent days, threatening to slice it in two. It has pressed ahead despite Western accusations it has violated a ceasefire.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says fierce government bombardment of eastern Ghouta has killed 780 people since Feb. 18, making this one of the deadliest campaigns of a war entering its eighth year.
Assad said on Sunday the Syrian army would continue the push into eastern Ghouta, an area of farmland and towns just outside Damascus which government forces have encircled since 2013.
Many civilian residents have fled from the frontlines into the town of Douma.
Assad and his allies regard the rebel groups that hold eastern Ghouta as terrorists, and say a UN Security Council resolution demanding a country-wide ceasefire does not apply to operations against them.
The eastern Ghouta fighting follows a pattern used in other areas recaptured by the government since Russia entered the war on Assad's side in 2015, with sieges, bombardment and ground offensives eventually forcing rebels to agree to leave.
For the rebels fighting to oust Assad, the loss of eastern Ghouta would mark their heaviest defeat since the battle of Aleppo in late 2016 and end their ability to target the capital. Rebel shelling on Damascus has killed dozens of people during the last two weeks, state-run media has said.


UN rushes aid to hunger-stricken Yemeni district

Updated 14 min 37 sec ago
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UN rushes aid to hunger-stricken Yemeni district

  • The aid push was directed at a district called Aslam where earlier this month some families were found eating leaves to survive
  • Getting relief to those in need has been complicated because international agencies are required to work from lists that are often compiled by local Houthi authorities
CAIRO: The UN and individual donors are rushing food to a desperate corner of northern Yemen where starving villagers were found to be living off leaves. Aid officials are searching for ways to ensure aid reaches those in need amid alarm that the country’s hunger crisis is worsening beyond the relief effort’s already strained capabilities.
The aid push was directed at a district called Aslam where earlier this month The Associated Press found some families eating leaves. But in a sign of the difficulties in tracking Yemen’s near-famine, conditions appeared to be as bad or worse in a neighboring district, Khayran Al-Maharraq.
On a recent day, Shouib Sakaf buried his 3-year-old daughter, Zaifa, the fifth child known to have died in the district this year from malnutrition-related illness. Sakaf prayed over a grave marked by piles of stones and tangled, dry branches from the surrounding mountain shrubs.
Zaifa was as old as Yemen’s civil war, waged between rebels known as Houthis and a coalition led by Saudi Arabia. Born in the war’s early days, Zaifa succumbed to the humanitarian crisis it has caused — widespread hunger, the collapse of the economy and the breakdown of the health system. In her final weeks, she wasted away, her ribs protruding, her face and feet swollen. At a local medical facility which did not have enough supplies, her father was told she had to be taken to a hospital further away to treat kidney complications. He had no way to pay for transportation there.
“Death came at 2:30 p.m.,” Sakaf said with a deep sigh. “Then we left.”
UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock issued a dire warning to the Security Council on Friday, ahead of the world body’s General Assembly, saying, “We are losing the fight against famine” in Yemen.
“We may now be approaching a tipping point, beyond which it will be impossible to prevent massive loss of life as a result of widespread famine across the country,” he said. “We are already seeing pockets of famine-like conditions, including cases where people are eating leaves.”
Across Yemen, around 2.9 million women and children are acutely malnourished; another 400,000 children are fighting for their lives, in the same condition as Zaifa was. This year, the UN and humanitarian groups provided assistance to more than 8 million of the most vulnerable Yemenis who don’t know when their next meal will come. That is a dramatic expansion from 2017, when food was reaching 3 million people a month in the country of nearly 29 million.
Lowcock spoke after the AP alerted UN relief officials to the villagers in Aslam district, an isolated area in Hajjah province.
After the AP report, activists launched an online campaign called: “Rescue Aslam” with bank account details to collect donations. Some 30 food baskets financed by individual donors were distributed over the past days.
The UN’s World Food Program carried out an investigation in Aslam and found that aid hasn’t been reaching all targeted beneficiaries. It has since sent trucks carrying 10,000 food packages to the district, each meant to feed one family for a month. Distribution of the aid is still pending the finalization of registration lists.
Getting relief to those in need has been complicated because international agencies are required to work from lists that are often compiled by local Houthi authorities. Critics accuse those authorities of favoritism in putting together the lists.
Stephen Anderson, the director of the WFP, said there is a “retargeting exercise” underway to make sure that “the poorest and hungriest and most marginalized people, wherever they are, are targeted first.”
The agency is introducing a biometric registration to establish a database of beneficiaries, including their finger prints to avoid forgery and duplications.
Anderson said the system “will help give us an assurance” that situations like those in Hajjah are prevented or at least minimized.
A senior relief official said local authorities have resisted implementing biometric registration and the main Houthi-run aid body, known by the acronym NAMCHA, has sought to do registration and control the database. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears of problems with authorities.
The conflict in Yemen began with the 2014 takeover of the capital, Sanaa, by the Houthis, an Iranian-backed Shiite movement that toppled the internationally recognized government.
The conflict has left more than 10,000 civilians dead, driven millions from their homes and sparked a cholera epidemic.