Middle East

Aid can only enter Syrian town once fighting over: Damascus

An empty ammunition casing and a fire are seen in a field after heavy fighting between Free Syrian Army fighters, and the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Lebanon's Hezbollah at the al Barak area near Qusair town May 31, 2013. REUTERS/ Rami Bleible (SYRIA - Tags: CONFLICT)

BEIRUT: Fears mounted for civilians trapped inside the besieged Syrian town of Qusair Sunday, but the regime insisted the Red Cross could only enter once fighting was over.

The director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group with a network of contacts across the country, told The Daily Star Sunday that all the main highways in and out of the border town are inaccessible to fleeing civilians. Government troops are stationed on many of the entrances to Qusair, while other are subject to regular shelling – leaving the town encircled.

Smaller escape routes may still be available to the at least 1,000 wounded, Rami Abdul-Rahman said, but added that they were hard to find and fraught with danger.

Syria’s Foreign Minister said Sunday that the Red Cross would be allowed into Qusair, but not until “military operations are over,” state TV reported.

Although Bashar Assad’s forces, aided by Hezbollah fighters, tightened their grip on Qusair last week by capturing Dabaa military airport, seven kilometers to the north, it was unclear when the battle for the strategic town would be over.

Fighting has raged in the town near Lebanon for over two weeks after Assad’s troops and aligned fighters launched a concerted push to capture an important corridor linking Tartous and Lattakia, two predominately Alawite cities on the Mediterranean coast, with the capital.

The International Committee of the Red Cross warned late Saturday that food, water and medical supplies were running dangerously low, and that they needed urgent access to Qusair. The ICRC had already requested entry to the town.

"Civilians and the wounded are at risk of paying an even heavier price as the fighting continues," added Robert Mardini, head of Middle East operations at the ICRC.

The ICRC's concerns were echoed by the U.N. human rights chief and its relief coordinator, who jointly called for a ceasefire to evacuate the injured.

"We urge the parties to agree to an immediate ceasefire to allow humanitarian agencies to evacuate the wounded and provide life-saving treatment and supplies," a joint statement by UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos and UN human rights commissioner Navi Pillay said Saturday.

Despite aid agencies concern about the humanitarian situation in the border town, Russia blocked a Security Council declaration Saturday that would have criticized the regime's offensive there.

Russia rejected the draft text, saying it was "not advisable to speak out as the U.N. Security Council didn't when Qusair was taken by the opposition," a council diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

Moscow's move to block the statement highlights the deep chasm between Russia and Western nations on how to deal with the 2-year-old civil war that has killed more than 80,000 people, according to the UN.

Russia is a staunch supporter of Damascus, and has shipped billons of dollars of weapons to the embattled regime and vetoed numerous U.N. resolutions slamming the government’s role in the civil war.

Moscow’s position has pitted Russia against the U.S. and Britain, who have thrown their weight behind the opposition and are debating arming rebel forces.

Reflecting this diplomatic tension, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Sunday that a peace conference aimed at finding a political solution to Syria’s bloodshed may be delayed.

"The Geneva 2 conference is the last chance. I hope it will take place. I think it could take place in July," Fabius said in an interview with Europe 1 radio and i-tele television. "It's not just about getting round the table and then asking what are we going to talk about. It needs to be prepared. That is why I say that the July date would be suitable," he said.

The planned talks, billed to take place in June, stalled last Thursday when the opposition-in-exile announced it would not attend the conference while Hezbollah continues to fight alongside the regime, and Assad said that Russia would send advanced anti-aircraft missiles to his forces.

As diplomatic efforts stumbled Sunday, a suicide car bomb struck a police station the contested Damascus neighborhood of Jobar, killing nine. The bomb appeared to be work of the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda-aligned rebel group, Abdul-Rahman said, adding that all of the dead were military personnel.

Syrian state news agency SANA countered that "10 citizens were wounded when a car driven by a terrorist exploded in Jobar", but gave no information on deaths in the attack.

Suicide bombs are a hallmark of Al-Qaeda and Nusra has taken credit for a number of such attacks in the past. No group has claimed responsibility for Sunday’s bomb. – with agencies

 

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