Putin orders ceasefire, aid corridor for besieged Syria enclave

A child receiving treatment in Eastern Ghouta on Sunday. There was the smell of chlorine after "an enormous explosion", according to the health authorities in the opposition-held area. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MOSCOW • Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered the implementation of a daily ceasefire in Syria's Eastern Ghouta, starting today, and the creation of a "humanitarian corridor" via which civilians can leave, his defence minister was quoted as saying yesterday.

The minister, Mr Sergei Shoigu, said the ceasefire would run from 9am to 2pm local time daily, the RIA news agency reported. He added that details on the location of the corridor would be released soon.

Mr Putin has been under pressure from France and Germany to halt the intense bombardment of Eastern Ghouta that has killed more than 550 people, including scores of children, since it started just over a week ago.

The Russian move comes after a weekend vote by the United Nations Security Council in favour of a 30-day nationwide ceasefire in Syria to allow aid supplies.

The UN has expressed outrage at the mounting death toll and near-constant bombing by Syrian government and Russian forces against what they say are "terrorists" holed up in the rebel-held enclave.

Further sparking global alarm, several people suffered symptoms consistent with exposure to chlorine gas in the enclave near Damascus and a child was killed, the health authorities in the opposition-held area said in a statement.

In recent weeks, the United States has accused Syria of repeatedly using chlorine gas as a weapon.

The Syrian government has consistently denied using chemical weapons in the war that will soon enter its eighth year.

Victims, ambulance drivers and others smelt chlorine after "an enormous explosion" in 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," it said.

Video circulated on social media 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.

The Russian Defence Ministry, which backs the Syrian government, accused rebels of preparing to use toxic agents in Eastern Ghouta so they could later accuse Damascus of employing the weapons.

Yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rejected allegations that forces loyal to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad were to blame for the suspected chlorine attack. He called the reports bogus.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2018, with the headline 'Putin orders ceasefire, aid corridor for besieged Syria enclave'. Print Edition | Subscribe