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Lavrov says Syria rebels must 'act' to make truce work

AFP , Wednesday 28 Feb 2018
Sergey Lavrov, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Russia, attends the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, February 28, 2018 (Photo: Reuters)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday that rebels in Syria's Eastern Ghouta were responsible for ensuring that a "humanitarian pause" in the area brings relief for devastated civilians.

"Russia, together with the Syrian government, has already announced the establishment of humanitarian corridors in Eastern Ghouta," Lavrov told the UN Human Rights Council.

The minister was referring to a checkpoint at the edge of the rebel-held enclave, through which would-be evacuees were told to exit the area.

"Now, it is the turn for the militants and their sponsors to act, militants entrenched there who still continue shelling Damascus, blocking aid deliveries and the evacuation of those wishing to leave," he added.

Tuesday was the first day of the five-hour daily "pause" in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta that was ordered by President Vladimir Putin, the Syrian regime's main backer.

But the truce was marred by violence, with Moscow and Damascus accusing armed groups of shelling the purported humanitarian corridors and keeping the population hostage.

Speaking to journalists, Lavrov charged that Washington and its allies in Syria had "willingly or unwillingly ... sustainably spared" the "terrorists" on the ground.

"We raised this issue with Washington many times and there is no credible answer," he said.

He insisted the five-hour daily pauses would be fruitful, "if the bandits who control East Ghouta so allow."

The Eastern Ghouta truce falls far short of a broader 30-day ceasefire Russia agreed to at the UN Security Council on Saturday but which has yet to take effect, and has inspired little trust among the besieged enclave's 400,000 residents.

Lavrov said the Security Council resolution could offer reprieve to those suffering across Syria, but that the ball was in the court of the opposition and its allies in Washington.

In addition to the dire situation in Eastern Ghouta, Lavrov told the council that Moscow was calling upon the members of the US-led coalition to ensure "the same humanitarian access to the areas in Syria under their control."

He highlighted the plight of people in Raqa, which was the Islamic State group's de facto capital in Syria until it was liberated last October.

He told the council it was "necessary to urgently dispatch a joint United Nations-International Committee of the Red Cross assessment mission to Raqa, which has been bombed to rubble and left to the mercy of fate by the coalition."

Asked about the possibility for such an assessment mission, the ICRC stressed that addressing the humanitarian needs in Raqa was one of its priorities in Syria.

But when it comes to Lavrov's call for a joint assessment mission, the organisation prefered to work in a more "independent manner, so such a joint mission is not planned."

UN humanitarian agency spokesman Jens Laerke meanwhile told AFP that "in Raqa city, conditions remain unsafe for civilian returns" and that the UN estimates that any humanitarian response activities should advance "slowly and with caution."

The UN "has requested authorisation from the Syrian authorities for a security assessment to deploy to Raqa to better understand the security situation in the city," he said, adding that the request was "pending".

To journalists, Lavrov warned that in Raqa, "there are still corpses decaying in the streets. There is no water supply, no sanitary facilities, and the entire territory is mined."

Russia's top diplomat also called for the resumption of peace talks for Syria, where more than 340,000 people have been killed in seven years.

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