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France presses Russia over Syria as more die in besieged rebel area

BEIRUT/PARIS (Reuters) - France urged Russia to make Syria’s government ease a dire humanitarian crisis in two rebel-held areas as more air strikes pounded them on Friday, adding to the death toll from one of the deadliest weeks of the war.

Children ride on a bicycle at a damaged site after an airstrike in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 9, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

President Bashar al-Assad’s army, which has seized a clear advantage in the war with Russian and Iranian help, is bombarding two of the last key rebel areas of Syria - Eastern Ghouta near Damascus and Idlib in the northwest near the Turkish border.

The latest air strikes killed more than 12 people in Eastern Ghouta, a pocket of towns and farmland east of Damascus where the death toll has climbed to more than 230 in the last four days - the enclave’s deadliest week since 2015, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Warplanes killed another 14 people in Idlib, the monitoring group said.

The multi-sided conflict is raging on other fronts too, with Turkey waging a big offensive against Kurdish forces in the Afrin region of northwestern Syria. Turkey resumed its air strikes against Afrin overnight.

Diplomacy is making no progress toward ending a war now approaching its eighth year, having killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced half the pre-war Syrian population of 23 million from their homes, with millions forced out as refugees.

In a telephone call, French President Emmanuel Macron pressed Russia’s Vladimir Putin to do all he could to ensure Damascus puts an end to the humanitarian emergency in Eastern Ghouta and Idlib, the Elysee Palace said in a statement.

Macron also told Putin it was imperative that peace talks made progress and voiced his concern at signs that chlorine bombs have been used against civilians recently. Damascus has consistently denied using chemical weapons.

The Kremlin said Putin and Macron discussed the Syrian peace process in the phone call.

The United Nations has been sounding the alarm about the escalating level of violence, and called on Tuesday for a humanitarian truce of at least one month to allow for aid deliveries and evacuations of the wounded.

But Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, said on Thursday a ceasefire was unrealistic and that militants were to blame for the bloodshed.

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In Eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel enclave near Damascus, residents described one of the most extensive bombing campaigns they have lived through in the war with multiple towns hit simultaneously and people driven into shelters for days.

“My brother was hit yesterday in an air strike and we had to amputate his leg. Thank God it was only this,” said an Eastern Ghouta resident reached by Reuters on Friday. “He was hit by shrapnel while sitting in his home,” said the resident, who identified himself as Adnan, declining to give his full name.

Damascus has repeatedly said it targets only militants. State TV said insurgent shelling killed two people and wounded four in Damascus. State news agency SANA said the army was retaliating by hitting militant positions in the Ghouta.

“The people here have collapsed, people are seen talking to themselves in the streets. They don’t know where to go,” said Siraj Mahmoud, a spokesman with the Civil Defence rescue service in the rebel pocket, whose population is estimated at 350,000.

“We are living a catastrophe.”

The Save the Children charity said children in the area were being “starved, bombed and trapped”. Citing its partners on the ground, it said 45 schools in Eastern Ghouta had been attacked since the start of the year, with 11 completely destroyed.

U.N. spokesman Rheal Leblanc told a regular U.N. briefing in Geneva: “These intense air strikes have been extremely preoccupying and especially they’ve hit even mental health centers.”

The World Food Programme, in an interview with Reuters on Thursday, reiterated the call for a cessation of hostilities to enable aid deliveries, but also noted that the Syrian government was not giving necessary permits to delivery aid.

“It has been now almost 60 days since we had the last convoy to a besieged area,” Jakob Kern, the WFP country director in Syria, told Reuters in a phone interview from Damascus.

“The frustration is two-fold. One is that we don’t get approvals to actually go but even if we got approvals, there just is too much fighting going on,” he said, pointing to hostilities in Idlib, Eastern Ghouta, and Afrin.


The Turkish army, which launched an air and ground offensive into the Afrin region last month, said it conducted further air strikes on Kurdish fighters there.

The local government in Afrin accused Turkey of creating a “humanitarian crisis” by killing at least 160 people and displacing tens of thousands since the start of its offensive. Ankara has denied such charges.

The overnight attacks came after a lull in Turkish air strikes following the shooting down of a Russian warplane elsewhere in Syria last weekend.

The strikes destroyed 19 targets including ammunition depots, shelters and gun positions, the Turkish military said in a statement without specifying when the raids were conducted. The raids began at midnight, state-run Anadolu news agency said.

Since the war began in 2011, Syrian Kurdish fighters and their allies have set up three autonomous cantons in the north, including Afrin which borders Turkey.

Ankara regards the YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has waged a three-decade insurgency on neighboring Turkish soil.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Putin, his Russian counterpart, spoke by telephone on Thursday and agreed to strengthen military and security service coordination in Syria, according to the Kremlin.

Reporting by Dahlia Nehme, Tom Perry and Ellen Francis in Beirut, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in Geneva, Matthias Blamont and John Irish in Paris; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Mark Heinrich