BEIRUT/GENEVA • Aid convoys reached a crossing point into Syria's eastern Ghouta yesterday, a witness said, bringing the first relief to the besieged enclave since a deadly government assault began two weeks ago.
The 46-truck convoy - which includes UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Syrian Arab Red Crescent - is the first to reach the besieged population since a government offensive to retake the area began last month.
A World Health Organisation (WHO) official said the government authorities had stripped most of the medical material from UN vehicles, preventing surgical kits, insulin, dialysis equipment and other supplies from reaching the enclave of 400,000 people.
A senior UN official accompanying the convoy said he was"not happy" to hear loud shelling near the crossing point despite an agreement that the aid would be delivered in safety.
Syrian regime bombardment on eastern Ghouta killed at least 45 civilians yesterday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Britain-based war monitor said at least 19 of the victims were killed in the town of Hammuriyeh, where regime aircraft used crude improvised munitions known as "barrels bombs".
The Observatory warned that the toll could rise further as bodies were still being retrieved from the rubble. It said the death toll from the offensive had exceeded 700 people in two weeks.
President Bashar al-Assad vowed on Sunday to continue a military push into the biggest remaining opposition stronghold near Damascus, saying the offensive did not contradict five-hour ceasefires arranged each day by his main ally Russia.
A wider, full ceasefire backed by the UN Security Council has not come into effect during the campaign, which began with massive government air strikes two weeks ago and has continued in recent days with a ground assault.
Pro-Assad forces have made sudden advances into eastern Ghouta in recent days, capturing a third of the area, the Observatory said, and bringing them close to cutting it in two, in what a rebel official called a "scorched earth" attack.
The area has been under siege by government forces since 2013, and the UN had feared that people were running out of food and medicine even before the assault began. Only one convoy of aid has reached the area so far this year, on Feb 14.
The UN Human Rights Council yesterday ordered an immediate probe into the situation in eastern Ghouta, approving a resolution calling on war crimes investigators to "urgently conduct a comprehensive and independent inquiry into recent events in eastern Ghouta".
The resolution, tabled by Britain, specifically condemned "the indiscriminate use of heavy weapons and aerial bombardments against civilians, and the alleged use of chemical weapons in eastern Ghouta".
Concern for civilians in eastern Ghouta helped prompt a UN Security Council resolution a week ago, demanding a full ceasefire across all of Syria.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, WASHINGTON POST