WASHINGTON - Russia started its “humanitarian pause” in Syria’s eastern region of Ghouta on Tuesday, but new fighting erupted and there were no signs of civilians leaving the besieged area or aid deliveries arriving.
At least six civilians were killed during the first day with a five-hour window ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin to call off Moscow’s air bombardment of the rebel-held enclave and allow civilians a chance to escape the violence near the Syrian capital, Damascus.
No civilians were seen leaving the embattled area at the checkpoint set up by the Syrian government, a way station where large portraits of Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were positioned side by side.
The Syrian state news agency SANA and Russia accused rebels fighting government forces of launching attacks on them during the humanitarian pause. In Moscow, the Defense Ministry said the rebels “went on the offensive in other directions, too.”
Russia accused the insurgents of preventing people from leaving the area, an allegation the rebels denied.
“Clearly the situation on the ground is not such that convoys can go in or medical evacuations can go out,” said United Nations humanitarian spokesman Jens Laerke.
Mohammed Alloush, head of the largest insurgent group in eastern Ghouta, called for Russia to stop its aerial attacks on the rebels and honor the 30-day U.N. cease-fire resolution it voted for last week.
“If Russia is concerned about civilians in eastern Ghouta, it should halt its planes immediately from bombing towns and residences and should stop the regime of Assad from its war of extermination,” Alloush said.
Samer al-Buaidhani, a 25-year-old from Douma, eastern Ghouta’s main hub, told the French news agency, “This Russian truce is a farce. Russia is killing us and bombing us every day. I don’t believe it’s safe for me or my family to leave by this system.”
More than 550 civilians, almost a quarter of them children, have been killed in the last nine days during the Russian and Syrian attacks on eastern Ghouta, one of the most violent episodes in Syria’s seven-year civil war.
In Washington, a top U.S. commander, General Joe Votel, who heads the military’s Central Command, accused Russia of playing an “incredibly destabilizing” role in Syria.
“Diplomatically and militarily, Moscow plays both arsonist and firefighter, fueling tensions among all parties in Syria,” Votel told the House Armed Services Committee.
“Moscow continues to advocate for alternate diplomatic initiatives to Western-led political negotiations in Syria and Afghan-led peace processes in Afghanistan, attempting to thwart the U.N.'s role and limit the advance of American influence,” Votel said.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Monday the Russian stand down would run daily from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. local time.
The order comes days after the U.N. Security Council ordered the 30-day cease-fire across Syria.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said resolutions issued by the Security Council “are only meaningful if they are effectively implemented,” while reiterating that Syrians in the besieged area of eastern Ghouta “cannot wait” for humanitarian aid.
U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra-ad Al Hussein cast a level of doubt on the prospects for the resolution, saying it “must also be viewed against a backdrop of seven years of failure to stop the violence, seven years of unremitting and frightful mass killing.”
Denis Sullivan, a political science professor and co-director of the Middle East Center at Boston-based Northeastern University, told VOA that Russia is in charge when it comes to the forces supporting Assad and that it will take the full focus of the U.S. government to apply necessary pressure on Russia.
“Without everybody also pushing in the direction of pressuring Russia, therefore Assad, then it’s just not going to happen,” Sullivan said.
Victor Beattie contributed to this report