Syrian conflict
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A Syrian man on crutches walks down a street as smoke billows in the rebel-held town of Douma, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, following air strikes by regime forces on the area on Friday. Photo: AFP

UN Security Council moves vote on Syrian ceasefire to Saturday as body count rises to more than 460

Pro-ceasefire countries had trouble coming to an agreement with Russia, which threatened to use its veto, saying a 30-day immediate ceasefire was ‘unrealistic’

The United Nations Security Council has postponed its vote on a 30-day immediate ceasefire until Saturday, allowing for one of the deadliest bombing campaigns of the seven-year-long civil war to continue.

On Friday, in the sixth straight day of a bombing campaign on the densely populated enclave of Eastern Ghouta - the last rebel bastion near the capital - warplanes flown by government forces and their allies pounded buildings with bombs.

At least 462 people - 99 of whom were children - have been killed there since Sunday, monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Security Council nations in favour of the ceasefire struggled to sway Syrian ally Russia, which threatened to use its veto in a vote if its preference for a non-binding timeframe for both starting and ending the ceasefire were not met.

The new vote is now expected to take place on Saturday at noon in New York.

People walk through the damage after an air raid in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, on Friday. Photo: Reuters
Civil defence help a man from a shelter in the besieged town of Douma on Friday. Photo: Reuters

Friday’s airstrike came ahead of a day-long, unfruitful tussle between UN members backing a Sweden and Kuwait-led 30-day ceasefire proposal, and Syrian ally Russia, which threatened to use its vote to kill the proposal, saying it was “unrealistic”.

Russia rejected proposals for an immediate 30-day ceasefire to allow an influx of medical aid and the removal of civilians, instead proposing a “humanitarian pause” with a tentative 30-day span should occur “as soon as possible”.

A vote on the possible ceasefire was repeatedly postponed on Friday as UN delegates struggled to find wording that would please both ceasefire proponents and Syrian allies.

Russia and its allies came under fire from Donald Trump as he met with Autralian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Friday.

“I will say what Russia and what Iran and what Syria have done recently is a humanitarian disgrace,” Trump said. “What those three countries have done to those people over the last short period of time is a disgrace.”

This photo released on Friday, Feb. 23, 2018 by the Syrian Civil Defense group known as the White Helmets, shows a member of the group carrying a girl who was wounded during airstrikes. Photo: Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP
US President Donald Trump speaks during a joint press conference with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in the East Room of the White House on Friday. Trump has said Russia’s backing of Syria is “disgraceful”. Photo: AFP

Mounting calls for a humanitarian truce in one of the bloodiest episodes of Syria’s seven-year conflict failed to stop more people being killed by air strikes and rocket fire.

As diplomats wrangled over the UN vote people huddled in basements while government forces pounded the enclave with rockets and bombs, turning towns into fields of ruins and even hitting hospitals.

Aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres said 13 of the facilities it supports in Eastern Ghouta were damaged or destroyed in three days, leaving remaining staff with very little to save the hundreds of wounded brought to them every day.

In the hospital mortuary in Douma, the main town in the enclave just east of Damascus, bodies wrapped in white shrouds were already lined up on the floor, two of them children.

Morning rain appeared to initially keep warplanes away on Thursday but the sky cleared by midday and jets, some of them Russian according to the Observatory, soon returned.

Russia has so far denied direct involvement in the assault on Ghouta but the pro-government Syrian newspaper Al-Watan reported on Thursday that Russian warplanes and advisers had joined the battle.

The US said on Thursday Russia had “unique responsibility” for the deaths.

White helmet volunteers and civilians search for survivors after bombings in the rebel-held Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Syria. Photo: EPA
Syrian civilians take shelter in a basement in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region. Photo: AFP

“Without Russia backing Syria, the devastation and the deaths would certainly not be occurring,” State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert told journalists.

Regime and allied forces have been massing around the enclave, in which an estimated 400,000 people live, ahead of a likely ground offensive to flush out holdout Islamist and jihadist groups.

“We are 14 women and children living in a room that is 10 feet wide, with no toilet and nowhere to wash,” said 53-year-old Umm Abdo, who joined a large group in the basement of a school in Arbin.

The brief respite provided by the rain on Thursday encouraged some residents to venture out of their basements and shelters, to buy food, check on their property or inquire about their relatives and neighbours.

In the town of Hammuriyeh, a queue had formed outside a shop as starving residents tried to stock up but another rocket sowed panic and sent everybody back to their shelters.

In Douma, a young boy tried to peddle lighters on the street but rocket fire quickly forced him to scamper back to cover.

United Nations Security Council meets in New York. Photo: Xinhua

An AFP correspondent saw rescuers known as the “White Helmets” forced to abandon efforts to retrieve a wounded woman from the rubble of a collapsed home when air strikes resumed.

When they ventured back to the site, the woman was dead.

The indiscriminate bombardment and the strikes on medical facilities have sparked global outrage but few concrete options have emerged to stop the bloodletting.

The aid community voiced its frustration as the world appeared once again powerless to stop a conflict that has left almost 350,000 dead in seven years and caused destruction rarely seen since the second world war.

Humanitarian agencies are “sickened that no matter how many times they’ve raised the alarm, taken the step of speaking out, called on the Security Council to do something, the violence and brutality will sink to new lows”, said the Syria INGO Regional Forum.

Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vassily Nebenzia addresses a United Nations Security Council meeting on the situation in Syria. Photo: Xinhua
Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Ja'afari addresses the United Nations Security Council meeting on the situation in Eastern Ghouta. Photo: Xinhua

At the UN, Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said sponsors Sweden and Kuwait were requesting a vote on the ceasefire plan even though they are “fully aware there is no agreement on it”.

The Security Council needs to reach a “feasible” agreement on a ceasefire and not take a decision that would be “populistic” and “severed from reality”, he said.

Talks for a deal between the regime and the armed groups controlling Ghouta appear to have stalled.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said jihadist fighters in Ghouta had rejected an evacuation deal.

“A few days ago, our military in Syria suggested to the fighters that they withdraw peacefully from Eastern Ghouta, like the evacuation of fighters and their families that was organised in East Aleppo,” he said.

The head of the defence committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament said Thursday that more than 200 new types of weapons were tested as part of his country’s military support to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

“It’s not an accident that today they are coming to us from many directions to purchase our weapons, including countries that are not our allies,” he said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Fresh bombings as UN weighs ceasefire