Damascus 'to continue strikes' despite UN call for ceasefire

China's Ambassador to the United Nations Ma Zhaoxu speaking to the US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley during a United Nations Security Council meeting on a ceasefire in Syria on Saturday in New York. The council voted unanimously to demand the truce
China's Ambassador to the United Nations Ma Zhaoxu speaking to the US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley during a United Nations Security Council meeting on a ceasefire in Syria on Saturday in New York. The council voted unanimously to demand the truce to allow for aid access and medical evacuations.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Teheran says it will respect truce, but this does not cover suburbs near Syrian capital 'held by terrorists'

BEIRUT • Iran said pro-Damascus forces would press ahead with attacks on an insurgent enclave near the Syrian capital, as ground fighting raged on there following a United Nations Security Council resolution demanding a 30-day truce across the country.

Rebels said they clashed with pro-government forces in the early hours of yesterday, as rescuers and residents said warplanes struck some towns in the Eastern Ghouta enclave.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said air strikes and shelling killed seven people and injured 31 in the eastern Damascus suburbs. The Britain-based monitoring group said yesterday's bombing was less intense than attacks over the past week.

There was no immediate comment from the Syrian military.

Iranian General Mohammad Baqeri, whose government backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said Teheran and Damascus would respect the UN resolution. But the Iranian military chief of staff also said the truce did not cover parts of the Damascus suburbs "held by the terrorists", reported the Tasnim news agency.

Several ceasefires have unravelled quickly during the seven-year war in Syria, where Mr Assad's military has gained the upper hand with the help of Iran and Russia.

The UN resolution on Saturday followed seven straight days of bombing by pro-government forces on Eastern Ghouta, in one of the bloodiest offensives of the war.

The Security Council voted unanimously to demand the truce to allow for aid access and medical evacuations. Yet, while Moscow supported adopting the resolution, Russian UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia cast doubt on its feasibility.

The resolution does not cover militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, Al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front.

Gen Baqeri said Iran and Syria would adhere to it. But "parts of the suburbs of Damascus, which are held by the terrorists, are not covered by the ceasefire, and cleanup (operations) will continue there", Tasnim quoted him as saying.

Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday discussed the Syrian crisis with his French and German counterparts, Mr Emmanuel Macron and Dr Angela Merkel, the Kremlin said. The leaders agreed to speed up their "exchange of information" over Syria during the call, which focused on implementing the UN ceasefire, the Kremlin said. In a statement, it said that the leaders stressed "the importance of continuing common efforts in the interests of the full implementation of the resolution as soon as possible".

The German and French leaders urged Russia to exert "maximum pressure" on Syria for the immediate implementation of the ceasefire, Berlin said.

The latest escalation by Damascus and its allies has killed more than 500 people in the enclave over the past week, the Observatory said. The dead included more than 120 children.

The Syrian government and Russia deny hitting civilians. Moscow and Damascus have said they seek to stop mortar attacks by militants injuring dozens in the capital.

The United Nations said nearly 400,000 people live in Eastern Ghouta, a pocket of towns and farms under government siege since 2013. It is the only big rebel bastion left near the capital.

The two major Islamist factions in Ghouta said yesterday that fierce battles raged on several fronts around the enclave, where troops and rebels have clashed in recent weeks. Moscow has blamed Nusra fighters from Al-Qaeda's former Syria branch for provoking the situation in Ghouta. Both main rebel factions in turn accuse their enemies of using the presence of a few hundred militant fighters as a pretext for attacks.

Pope Francis described Syria as "martyred" yesterday, calling for aid access and an immediate end to violence. "All this is inhuman," the Pope told tens of thousands of people in St Peter's Square for his weekly blessing.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 26, 2018, with the headline 'Damascus 'to continue strikes' despite UN call for ceasefire'. Print Edition | Subscribe