BEIRUT/GENEVA (REUTERS) - Aid convoys reached a crossing point into Syria's eastern Ghouta on Monday (March 5), a witness said, bringing the first relief to the besieged enclave since one of the deadliest government assaults of the seven-year war began two weeks ago.
A World Health Organisation (WHO) official said government authorities had stripped most medical material from UN vehicles, preventing surgical kits, insulin, dialysis equipment and other supplies from reaching the enclave of 400,000 people.
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.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said the death toll from the offensive had exceeded 700 people in two weeks of intense bombardment on the densely populated region of farmland and towns.
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.
Syrian state television broadcast on Monday morning from Al-Shifouniyeh, one of the villages captured by the government, showing collapsed concrete buildings, rubble-strewn streets and bullet-pocked walls.
The area has been under siege by government forces since 2013, and the United Nations had feared that people inside were running out of food and medicine even before the major assault began two weeks ago. Only one convoy of aid has reached the area so far in 2018, on Feb 14.
In comments broadcast by state television on Sunday, Mr Assad dismissed Western statements about the humanitarian situation in eastern Ghouta as "a ridiculous lie".
A convoy sent by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent reached the crossing point into eastern Ghouta early on Monday along with empty buses sent by the government to evacuate civilians who might come out of the enclave, a Reuters witness said.
The first vehicles from a second convoy sent by the United Nations arrived soon after, the witness said. The UN's aid agency OCHA said on Sunday it aimed to deliver a convoy with 46 truckloads of health, food and nutrition supplies to eastern Ghouta on Monday.
A WHO official told Reuters that Syrian government officials had rejected 70 per cent of the supplies it had prepared for Monday's convoy, including "all trauma (kits), surgical, dialysis sessions and insulin".
Russia's military said the rebels which control eastern Ghouta had agreed to let civilians leave in return for aid.
Mr Assad and Russia have both repeatedly accused the rebels of stopping civilians fleeing eastern Ghouta, a charge denied by the insurgents, who say people there fear arrest, torture or forcible conscription if they cross into government areas.
Concern for civilians in eastern Ghouta helped prompt a UN Security Council resolution a week ago demanding a full ceasefire across all of Syria.
Russia, a veto-wielding member which accepted the resolution, says it does not apply to the rebel groups in eastern Ghouta, which Moscow regards as members of terrorist groups banned by the United Nations.
Moscow has instead established daily humanitarian pauses in the assault each day from 9am to 2pm (0700-1200 GMT).