Shelling Reported As 'Humanitarian Pause' Begins In Syria's Ghouta

There were reports of air strikes, rocket fire, and mortar shelling in Syria's rebel-held eastern Ghouta region, after a five-hour truce called by Russia took effect there.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on February 27 that the situation in the besieged enclave near Damascus was relatively calm overnight.

But it later reported that in the first two hours of the Russian-ordered "humanitarian pause" a number of air strikes hit several towns. A Syrian military source was quoted as denying the report.

Meanwhile, the Russian military and Syrian state media said mortar shells targeted an evacuation route opened to allow civilians to leave the area.

"Right now, there is intensive fire from the rebel side and not one civilian has left," Russian General Viktor Pankov said.

General Major Yury Yevtushenko accused rebels holed up in Ghouta of holding civilians as hostages.

A rebel faction in Ghouta denied preventing civilians from leaving the enclave or shelling an evacuation route.

"Clearly, the situation on the ground is not such that convoys can go in or medical evacuations can go out," Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), said in Geneva.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on February 26 that President Vladimir Putin ordered a daily "humanitarian pause" in Ghouta from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. local time and the creation of a "humanitarian corridor."

The Defense Ministry said the measures, decided in agreement with Syrian forces, are aimed at helping civilians leave the besieged area where 393,000 of them are trapped, and to evacuate the sick and wounded.

Moscow’s announcement came after the UN Security Council on February 24 passed a resolution demanding a 30-day cease-fire "without delay" to allow aid deliveries and medical evacuations in Syria’s conflict areas.

The move followed eight days of intense bombardment by Syrian government forces in eastern Ghouta that killed more than 560 people, according to activists.

Russia and Iran have given Assad's government crucial support throughout the seven-year war in Syria, which began with a government crackdown on peaceful protests. Moscow helped turn the tide of the conflict in Assad's favor by launching a campaign of air strikes in 2015 and stepping up its military presence on the ground.

On February 26, the United States urged Russia to use its influence to secure a monthlong cease-fire across Syria.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert tweeted that "the Syrian regime, and its Russian and Iranian backers, continue to attack” eastern Ghouta, “terrorizing hundreds of thousands of civilians with air strikes, artillery, rockets, and a looming ground attack."

"The regime's use of chlorine gas as a weapon only intensified the misery of the civilian population," Nauert also wrote, in an apparent reference to allegations of a Syrian chemical attack on Ghouta over the weekend.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier in the day said that reports of an alleged chemical attack on the Damascus suburb were "fake stories," despite videos and photos of alleged victims of the attack shown in the media.

The United Nations and European countries called on Russia to expand the announced five-hour pause into a longer-lasting truce.

Britain’s Deputy UN Ambassador Jonathan Allen said Russia was playing "cynical games" and that its announcement shows that "Russia can implement if it chooses to. If it’s able to do a five-hour pause, it’s able to do a 24-hour pause."

"Five hours is better than no hours, but we would like to see any cessation of hostilities be extended," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

With reporting by AFP, AP, and Reuters