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Five-hour 'humanitarian pause' held in a rebel-held enclave near Damascus

A plume of smoke rises while civil defence workers arrive at the scene of an attack after airstrikes hit a rebel-held suburb near Damascus, Syria last week
By Sarah El Deeb

A five-hour "humanitarian pause" has been held in a rebel-held enclave near the Syrian capital Damascus, which saw government and Russian forces set up a corridor to allow civilians to leave.

However, by the end of the ceasefire, no civilians had crossed over from besieged eastern Ghouta.

The lull offered only brief respite for the estimated 400,000 residents of the area, which has been under intense attack by the Syrian government for weeks.

The United Nations and aid workers had criticised the unilateral arrangement, saying the situation did now allow for convoys to go in or for people in need of medical evacuation to be brought out.

The enclave's residents also fear their region would meet the same fate as the rebel-held half of the city of Aleppo, where a similar Russian-ordered pause in 2016 called on residents to evacuate the area and for gunmen to lay down their arms. A full ground assault followed, finally bringing Aleppo under government control.

Footage on Tuesday from a crossing point manned by the Syrian military between eastern Ghouta and Damascus showed preparations under way to allow civilians to leave, including small buses waiting at a parking area manned by soldiers. Syria's state-run Al-Ikhbariya TV said a restaurant was also set up, but there were no signs of anyone emerging.

Russia's state news agency Tass said Russian military police on the ground have set up the humanitarian corridor with the Syrian troops.

The Wafideen crossing point is near Douma, one of the largest towns in eastern Ghouta, about 12 miles from the centre of Damascus.

Reporters said in an Al-Ikhbariya broadcast that mortar shells had targeted the crossing, preventing civilians from leaving. A least a couple of mortars were heard as the broadcast was live, and some appeared to be outgoing from government areas.

The director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdurrahman, said about five shells from government areas fell on the enclave. One shell fell in an area where the government had began a ground offensive, and it was not clear if it was fired by the government or the rebels.

Russian general Viktor Pankov said residents cannot leave because of the shelling.

The pause, ordered by Russian president Vladimir Putin, comes as a 30-day ceasefire approved by the UN at the weekend failed to take hold in eastern Ghouta. Residents and aid groups criticised such unilateral truces for lacking international monitoring and the consensus of all the parties.

Ingy Sedky, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said humanitarian corridors need to be well-planned and must be implemented with the consent of all sides.

She said: "This is essential so that people can leave safely, if they choose to do so.

"And for those who decide to leave, all measures should be taken to provide assistance, protection and shelter to them. And those who remain must be protected from any attacks."

The UN coordinator for humanitarian affairs also said conditions were not conducive for any aid deliveries.

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