UN seeks access to Syrians stuck in Eastern Ghouta

GENEVA: The UN humanitarian adviser for Syria called on Wednesday for access to the eastern Ghouta town of Douma, where he said some 80,000-150,000 civilians were “on their knees” after years of siege and fighting.
Syrian government forces backed by Russia have recaptured nearly all of eastern Ghouta, which was the last major rebel enclave on the outskirts of Damascus, in a ferocious assault that began in February, marking a major victory for President Bashar al Assad.
They were now negotiating with the group inside Douma, the last remaining area under opposition control, adviser Jan Egeland told a news briefing in Geneva.
“We hope that that agreement will lead to people being able to stay if they choose to, to get amnesty for those who put away their arms but also to an opportunity to leave for those who choose to leave Douma,” he said.
Out of the nearly 400,000 people besieged in eastern Ghouta for years by Syrian government forces, 130,000 had fled in the last three weeks, Egeland said, adding that evacuations should be voluntary.
They included 80,000 people now in collective centres in government-controlled areas, where conditions were terrible, while 50,000 fled to opposition-held Idlib — which he called “the biggest cluster of displacement camps in the world” with around 1.5 million people.
With no reports of recent fighting or air raids in eastern Ghouta, he hoped the battle there was now over.
Rebel group Jaish al Islam, which has not confirmed any deal with the Syrian government over eastern Ghouta, released five prisoners on Wednesday as part of a deal over Douma, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and state media said.
“We would then say anywhere between 80,000 to 150,000 are in the Douma area still under control of the armed opposition groups, Jaish the biggest,” Egeland said.
“Why can we not deliver to the people of Douma today for example even though we are on the eve of a deal for Douma, they are really, really on their knees in terms of needs.”
Earlier, the Jaish group released five prisoners as part of a deal over the eastern Ghouta town of Douma, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and state media said.
The Britain-based war monitor said the insurgents had kidnapped them from the nearby town of Adra about five years ago.
Syrian state TV separately said the army had freed the four women and a man from the militants as part of “efforts by the Syrian state to liberate all the prisoners in Douma”.
Jaish holds more than 3,500 prisoners and hostages in total, Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Observatory, said.
State media has said Jaish had accepted a deal giving its fighters safe passage to towns that are located in a buffer zone on the border with Turkey that is controlled by the Turkish military and allied Syrian rebel groups.
Jaish has not confirmed any deal with the Syrian government over eastern Ghouta.
On Tuesday an opposition source said talks were continuing with Damascus, even as state media reported the departure of another group of fighters from eastern Ghouta.
The state news agency Sana said on Wednesday buses had entered Douma for the third consecutive day to evacuate more rebel fighters and their families to the northern Syrian city of Jarablus, near the border with Turkey.
The group, which is estimated to have many thousands of fighters, has previously insisted it will not leave Douma or accept “forced displacement” to another part of Syria.
A military source said on Monday that some elements of Jaish were still rejecting the deal.