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Syria: Hundreds left behind in evacuations near Damascus

In this photo released on Thursday Dec. 28, 2017, by the International Committee of The Red Cross, shows a member of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, left, carries a baby during a human evacuation of sick people from the eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, Syria. (Uncredited / Associated Press)
In this photo released on Thursday Dec. 28, 2017, by the International Committee of The Red Cross, shows a member of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, left, carries a baby during a human evacuation of sick people from the eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, Syria. (Uncredited / Associated Press)

BEIRUT – More than 400 patients on a U.N. list waiting for evacuations from a siege in Syria were left behind on Friday as the Red Cross said it had finished transferring just 29 people and their families to Damascus for medical care.

It took the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent three days to evacuate the patients and their family members from the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus to hospitals just minutes away, underscoring the degree to which authorities have obstructed basic relief work in the war-torn country.

The U.N. submitted a list of names to the government six months ago of patients requiring evacuation from the government’s siege of the suburbs of its own capital because they were suffering from war wounds, kidney failure, and malnutrition. In November, U.N. humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said the list had reached 494 names, and 12 patients had died waiting for care. The U.N.’s children’s agency said more than 100 children require evacuation.

The government, which has besieged the eastern Ghouta suburbs with varying degrees of severity since 2013 in response to a revolt against President Bashar Assad’s rule, refused to allow any evacuations until this week. U.N. officials have blasted the use of sieges against civilians in Syria as “medieval” and “barbaric.” Amnesty International called the tactic a crime against humanity.

It is not clear if the 29 patients evacuated were on the U.N. list.

The Army of Islam, a prominent rebel faction in eastern Ghouta, said it had agreed to release an equivalent number of prisoners of war and other captives to the government in exchange for securing the medical evacuations.

The last of the 29 evacuations came as rebels attacked a government position at the town of Harasta, along the eastern Ghouta front, and the government resumed its stepped up bombardment of the suburbs.

Al-Qaida-linked insurgents joined the Ahrar al-Sham rebel faction to launch a new attack on government forces in Harasta, activists and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, leading to violent clashes in the area. The fighting is concentrated near a government military installation partially seized by rebels in mid-November.

It was the first time the al-Qaida-linked Hay’at Tahrir al Sham – Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee, also known as HTS – joined the fighting over the installation. The government maintains that its war in Syria is against al-Qaida and other terrorists.

Fighters for HTS were preparing to leave eastern Ghouta on buses to HTS-dominated northwest Syria two weeks ago, said local media activist Anas al-Dimashqi and Observatory head Rami Abdurrahman. But arrangements fell apart.

Syria’s nearly seven-year civil war has killed some 400,000 people and created the worst refugee crisis since World War II, with some five million Syrians having fled the country.


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