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UNICEF chief calls Syria's Ghouta 'hell on earth' for children

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The head of the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF said on Thursday the besieged Syrian enclave of eastern Ghouta had become a “hell on earth” for children and aid was urgently needed.

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“The bombing is almost unceasing and the amount of violence means that the child sees the violence, sees the death, the maiming. And now there is a lack of water and food, so disease is coming on,” Henrietta Fore told Reuters in an interview.

Syria’s government is two weeks into a fierce assault to retake eastern Ghouta from rebels, saying the offensive is needed to stop insurgent shelling of neighboring Damascus.

The military campaign has killed more than 900 civilians since it began on Feb. 18, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor.

The U.N. Security Council demanded a 30-day ceasefire across all Syria on Feb. 24, but the Syrian government and its ally Russia say the truce does not extend to the rebel groups in eastern Ghouta, which they describe as terrorist.

For the 400,000 people the United Nations says live in eastern Ghouta, the assault has come after years of siege that has caused shortages of food and medicine.

A U.N. aid convoy was allowed into eastern Ghouta on Monday, but some medical supplies were stripped from it, and it had to leave before it had finished unloading because of the fighting.

“We need in the humanitarian community a chance to deliver assistance. Convoys need to come in with food and supplies, and the last convoy was only half unloaded,” said Fore.

The fighting in eastern Ghouta has displaced more people inside the enclave. Previous government sieges of rebel areas have ended with thousands of civilians leaving for other parts of the country.

“5.8 million Syrians are on the move, whether externally or internally ... and half of this is children, so children are affected most,” Fore said.

The children who are most vulnerable are the ones separated from their families. UNICEF tries to unite lost children with their relatives.

“In eastern Ghouta it is particularly hard. We don’t have enough access... it’s a very difficult time for children,” she said.

Reporting by Dahlia Nehme; writing by Angus McDowall; editing by Andrew Roche