A UN aid convoy crossed into Syria’s Eastern Ghouta on Monday, bringing the first relief to the besieged enclave in weeks, despite ongoing shelling. But the aid was stripped of vital medical supplies.
A convoy of trucks entered the Duma neighbourhood of Eastern Ghouta Monday afternoon “with health and nutrition supplies, along with food for 27,500 people in need,” said the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (OCHA) in a Twitter post. However, the UN group added that “many life-saving health supplies were not allowed to be loaded.”
Before entering the besieged enclave on the outskirts of Damascus, Syrian government officials removed trauma kits and surgical supplies from the inter-agency convoy, an official from the WHO (World Health Organisation) told Reuters.
“All trauma (kits), surgical, dialysis sessions and insulin were rejected by security,” a WHO official said by email, adding that some 70 percent of the supplies loaded on the trucks leaving the warehouses had been removed during the inspection.
A senior UN official accompanying the convoy said he was "not happy" to hear loud shelling near the crossing point into Eastern Ghouta despite an agreement that the aid would be delivered under peaceful conditions.
"We need to be assured that we will be able to deliver the humanitarian assistance under good conditions," Ali al-Za'tari told Reuters at the crossing point.
Za'tari said the convoy had been scaled back from providing food for 70,000 people to providing for 27,500. The UN says Syria has agreed to let it bring the rest of the food for the full 70,000 in a second convoy in three days.
"The convoy is not sufficient," Za'tari said.
Home to some 400,000 people, Eastern Ghouta has been under a crippling siege and daily bombardment for months. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights 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.
Assad dismisses humanitarian warnings as ‘ridiculous lie’
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 UN 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 this year, on February 14.
In comments broadcast by state television on Sunday, Syrian President Bashar al Assad dismissed Western statements about the humanitarian situation in eastern Ghouta as "a ridiculous lie".
Moscow made a similar case at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva: "The media atmosphere is saturated with lies," Russian diplomat Alexei Goltyaev said. "As a result we see debates and votes that are entirely removed from the actual situation on the ground."
Monday's convoy of trucks sent by the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent passed the last Syrian government checkpoint and began to drive into the rebel-held area, a Reuters witness said.
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.
Veto-wielding member Russia accepted the resolution, but says it does not apply to the rebel groups in Eastern Ghouta, which Moscow regards as members of terrorist groups banned by the UN. Moscow has instead established daily humanitarian pauses from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. (0700-1200 GMT).
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)