July 26, 2018 / 3:52 PM / 5 months ago

French aid to Syrian government-controlled eastern Ghouta arrives

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syrian aid workers began distributing 50 tonnes of French aid to eastern Ghouta on Thursday after Russia agreed to facilitate its delivery in what is the first Western humanitarian effort into a government-controlled area during the seven-year civil war.

The aid, including blankets, clothes, tents and urgent medical supplies, arrived on a Russian plane to Russia’s Hmeimim military base in northwestern Syria from France on Saturday.

It came after an agreement was reached between President Emmanuel Macron and Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Moscow following talks in May.

Paris had insisted the cargo be distributed under the supervision of a team from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) so it could guarantee where and when it would go, given concerns Paris had over the Syrian Arab Red Crescent’s (SARC) ties to the government.

“We welcome every humanitarian initiative that aims to ease the suffering of the most vulnerable people throughout Syria which have witnessed difficult conditions over the past years,” SARC President Khaled Hboubati said in a statement after distribution of the aid had started.

Reuters television images showed some 7 trucks delivering aid in the Douma region.

Pro-government forces retook the eastern Ghouta region from rebels in April after besieging the region for years and launching a brutal bombing campaign with their Russian allies.

Since then little aid has entered eastern Ghouta, where about 500,000 people live.

The French aid aims to help 500 seriously wounded people and another 15,000 with minor ailments, French officials have said.

France received assurances from Russia that all necessary approvals from Assad’s government had been given for the convoy to make the journey from the north to eastern Ghouta.

French diplomats said on Thursday things seemed to be going smoothly.

If the convoy is delivered smoothly, it could facilitate future U.N. aid efforts, which have often faced difficulties gaining approval or been held up by Syrian government forces, the officials said.

France, which has backed opponents to Assad in the conflict, cut off diplomatic ties with Damascus in 2011.

Macron has for several months attempted to nurture a dialogue with Putin on Syria to break the deadlock on humanitarian aid.

He considers it a first step to forging a wider political discussion with Russia that would ultimately bring together key regional and international players to end the civil war.

Additional reporting and writing by John Irish in Paris; editing by David Evans

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