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Despite U.N. Call For Cease-Fire, Strikes Continue On Damascus Suburb

Photo caption: Syrian children receive treatment at a makeshift clinic after a suspected che...

Photo by Hamza Al-Ajweh AFP/Getty Images

Syrian children receive treatment at a makeshift clinic after a suspected chemical attack on the rebel-held village of al-Shifuniyah, in the Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, late on Sunday. A child died and at least 13 other people suffered breathing difficulties after an attack on the besieged Syrian rebel enclave, a medic and a monitor said.

Just days after the U.N. Security Council demanded a 30-day ceasefire across Syria, heavy shelling has resumed in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta.

Meanwhile, according to Russian state media, Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a "humanitarian corridor" to allow civilians to leave the besieged region.

The area, held by rebels and under attack by the Syrian regime, has been targeted in a series of strikes over the past week — resulting in the deaths of more than 500 people, including many women and children, according to observer estimates.

The airstrikes briefly eased up in the hours after the Security Council's unanimous vote on Saturday, NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports from Beirut. But they've returned — and heavy shelling has also began, as the air campaign has been replaced by a ground war.

"There's even reports of chlorine gas attacks ... in one of the towns that's near the frontline where rebels fighting the Syrian regime," Ruth says. "There's videos posted online, really distressing images of people, including children, coughing and choking in a makeshift hospital. We spoke to doctors who said that this had happened. I can't independently confirm this but what is clear is that civilians are desperate."

There are some 350,000 people trapped under siege in Eastern Ghouta, Ruth says; the U.N. estimates as many as 400,000 people live in the region.

As NPR's Laurel Wamsley reported over the weekend, the Security Council's ceasefire resolution "was delayed several times in an effort to get Russia's approval. ... most members of the Security Council had wanted to require the cease-fire to go into effect within 72 hours, but Russia had pushed for a looser timeline."

The final resolution called for hostilities to cease "without delay." The break in fighting was supposed to allow desperately needed humanitarian aid to enter besieged areas like Eastern Ghouta, where medical supplies are scarce even as civilian casualties are mounting. Critically sick and ill civilians could be evacuated, and supplies could be delivered for residents who have run out of water, food and formula.

But there's no sign of a pause in the carnage.

On Monday, Reuters reported that Russia is calling for a more targeted cease-fire specifically to allow civilians to escape from eastern Ghouta:

"Putin has ordered the implementation of a daily ceasefire in Syria's eastern Ghouta, starting on Tuesday, and the creation of a 'humanitarian corridor' via which civilians can leave, his defence minister was quoted as saying. "The minister, Sergei Shoigu, said the ceasefire would run from 09:00 until 14:00 local time daily, RIA news agency reported. He said details on the location of the corridor would be released soon."

In the meantime, deaths are continuing: more than a dozen civilians have died since the U.N. cease-fire was announced, Ruth reports.

She spoke to a doctor in Eastern Ghouta, Salah, who asked that his last name not be used for his safety. "He tells a story of a man who was, like many families, living in the basement, and took the chance of going up above ground to try to get some food, but was killed in another rocket attack," she said. "And he says now they just are running out of everything — medicines and even basic supplies like bandages."

Government troops and pro-government militias have been amassing on the border near Eastern Ghouta, and are attempting to regain control of the territory. A media official attached to Syrian military forces recorded a video near the front line of battle, saying "we don't care what the U.N. Security Council decides ... the important thing is that Ghouta is right behind me and it will be liberated," as Ruth translated it.

The government maintains it is not violating the cease-fire by continuing to attack Eastern Ghouta, because al-Qaida-affiliated groups are excluded from the agreement. "In this suburb there are said to be a small number of rebels who are aligned with al-Qaida," Ruth explains. "The government and its allies are basically using that as an argument to say ... the cease-fire doesn't apply here."

Meanwhile, in government-controlled Damascus, residents largely support the offensive on Eastern Ghouta, Ruth reports. The rebels have used the suburb as a base for deadly shelling attacks on Damascus.

Speaking on Monday, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres addressed the conflict in Eastern Ghouta and said it's "high time to stop this hell on Earth," The Associated Press reports.

Guterres was speaking to the Human Rights Council, the wire service writes:

"The remarks were Guterres' first to a U.N. body since the 15-member [Security] council unanimously adopted a resolution demanding a 30-day truce across Syria over the weekend.

"Guterres says he welcomes the resolution but added that council resolutions 'are only meaningful if they are effectively implemented.'

"He says he expects the 'resolution to be immediately implemented and sustained.' Guterres also called for safe, unimpeded and sustained delivery of humanitarian aid and services, and evacuations of the sick and wounded."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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