Middle East

Syria war: UN plea to end 'hell on earth' Eastern Ghouta crisis

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Media captionYoung children have been found buried in the rubble

The UN Secretary General has demanded an immediate end to fighting in the Eastern Ghouta in Syria, describing the rebel enclave as a "hell on earth".

"I believe Eastern Ghouta cannot wait," Antonio Guterres told the UN Security Council on Wednesday.

The council is being urged to consider a resolution which calls for a 30-day ceasefire in Syria.

The Eastern Ghouta has been under fierce bombardment from government forces backed by Russian airpower.

The region is the last major rebel-held area near the capital Damascus.

The Syrian military says it is trying to liberate the area from what it terms terrorists - but it has also been accused of targeting civilians.

"This is a human tragedy that is unfolding in front of our eyes and I don't think we can let things go on happening in this horrendous way," Mr Guterres said.

He said an end to the fighting would allow the evacuation of hundreds of people who require urgent treatment as well as allowing humanitarian aid to reach the region.

The draft UN Security Council resolution, proposed by Kuwait and Sweden, is designed to facilitate medical evacuations and deliveries of humanitarian aid.

The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said immediate action was needed to save civilian lives from the "barbaric Assad regime".

However the BBC's UN Correspondent Nick Bryant says Russia may not allow it to pass.

Russia says it wants an urgent Security Council meeting to discuss the situation, but Western diplomats view this as a delaying tactic to give the Syrian military more time to continue its offensive, our correspondent says.

Moscow, which supports the Syrian government, said peace talks with the rebels had failed on Wednesday.

Meanwhile Iran, another Syrian government ally, says it is in close contact with Syria, Russia and Turkey to try to reduce tension in the Eastern Ghouta.

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Media captionIran's deputy foreign minister: 'Everybody is worried about Ghouta'

Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi told the BBC's Lyse Doucet that Iran believed in a political solution to the conflict, not a military one.

UN human rights commissioner Zeid Raad Al Hussein has also joined calls for an end to the conflict in the region.

"How much cruelty will it take before the international community can... take resolute, concerted action to bring this monstrous campaign of annihilation to an end?" he said in a statement.

How bad is the situation in the Eastern Ghouta?

Pro-government forces, backed by Russia, intensified their efforts to retake the last major rebel stronghold on Sunday night.

A doctor working in the region says the situation is "catastrophic" - and he believes the international community has abandoned the people living there.

"They targeted everything: shops, markets, hospitals, schools, mosques, everything," Dr Bassam told the BBC on Wednesday.

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Media captionEastern Ghouta resident: "Missiles are dropping like rain"

"Maybe every minute we have 10 or 20 air strikes... I will treat someone - and after a day or two they come again, injured again."

"Where is the international community, where is (the UN) Security Council? ... they abandoned us. They leave us to be killed," he said.

What is the death toll?

The UN says at least 346 civilians have been killed and 878 have been injured, mostly in airstrikes.

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Image caption A makeshift hospital was set up in Douma - one of the several towns under bombardment

But they say precise figures are still difficult to establish.

The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM), which operates medical facilities in the Eastern Ghouta, says 70 people were killed on Wednesday, bringing the total to 366.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the total death toll since Sunday at 310.

It said that barrel bombs - containers filled with explosives and shrapnel - were used in government strikes on the towns of Jisreen and Kfar Batna on Wednesday.

It follows the bombardment on Tuesday of at least 10 towns and villages across the Eastern Ghouta.

Is humanitarian aid getting in?

No. The government has allowed one humanitarian convoy into the Eastern Ghouta since late November, and there are severe shortages of food.

A bundle of bread now costs close to 22 times the national average and 12% of children under five years old are said to be acutely malnourished.

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Media captionFather describes a 'miserable day for Eastern Ghouta'

On Wednesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) joined the UN in calling for emergency humanitarian access to allow much needed aid to be delivered and the wounded to be evacuated.

"Wounded victims are dying only because they cannot be treated in time. In some areas of Ghouta, entire families have no safe place to go," the ICRC's Marianne Gasser said in a statement.

What about the fighting elsewhere in Syria?

Meanwhile, pro-government fighters have been sent to the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northern Syria to confront an offensive by Turkish troops and Syrian rebels.

Turkey fired shells near the advancing columns, which, it says, forced the pro-government fighters into retreat.

Afrin lies just south of the Turkish border. Turkey is trying to oust the Kurdish YPG militia, which controls the area and which has called on the Syrian military for help.

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Media captionPro-government forces waved Syrian flags as they entered Afrin, in footage posted by the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah

Syria has denounced the Turkish offensive as a "blatant attack" on its sovereignty, while Turkey has insisted it will not back down.

Syrian government forces are also carrying out offensives on the rebel-held north-western province of Idlib. The UN says more than 300,000 people have been displaced by the fighting there since December.

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