UN expresses alarm at reports of warring parties forcing fleeing Syrians to pay for safe passage

2018-06-30 08:09

The United Nations' human rights chief has warned of a looming "catastrophe" in southern Syria as government forces pressed ahead with an offensive in rebel-held areas after the ending of a 12-hour truce in the strategic province of Deraa. 

High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein said in a statement on Friday that there was a "grave risk that intensified fighting will see many civilians trapped", condemning "[how] civilians in Syria continue to be used as pawns by the various parties".

Syrian government forces launched the military push on June 19 aiming to retake the southern provinces of Deraa, Quneitra and parts of Sweida, still mostly held by opposition fighters.

The UN estimates that up to 50 000 people have fled the embattled areas in southern Syria in recent days but the opposition puts the number at double that figure, or about 100 000.

With Russian air support, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have retaken territory and continue to progress southwards where the last pockets of opposition remain.  

Al-Hussein said his office received reports that "in the last few days, civilians at some government checkpoints in the southern-eastern and western parts of Deraa have only been allowed through to government-held areas in Deraa city and Sweida governorate for a fee."

"To add to the bleak situation facing civilians, there are also reports that ISIL fighters in control of the Yarmouk Basic area in the western part of Deraa governorate are not allowing civilians to leave the areas under their control."

Zeid emphasised the warring factions' responsibility toward civilians under international law which mandates that they "do their utmost to protect civilians … [and] provide safe passage to those wishing to flee."

Earlier on Friday, a temporary truce in Deraa between government forces and the rebel group, Free Syrian Army (FSA), brokered by Russia and Jordan, ended at noon local time (09:00 GMT).

Deraa province is a strategic region that extends along the border with Jordan and the occupied Golan Heights. Until recently, it was part of a US-backed-and-negotiated truce.

In the town of al-Musayfirah in eastern Deraa, air attacks that targeted an underground shelter left 17 dead, including 11 children, the worst single incident since the Syrian government offensive began in the area on June 19, according to DPA news agency.

That brings to at least 96 the total number of civilians killed, including 19 children, since the offensive in Deraa began, according to reports.

The violence has raised concerns about the humanitarian situation in the province.

Hezbollah-affiliated Al-Mayadeen TV said Syrian government troops had opened three crossing points in rebel-held territory for civilians wishing to flee to the other side.

Syrians fleeing the fighting and heading toward neighbouring Jordan have been denied entry, with authorities there claiming to not have the resources to deal with a new wave of refugees. 

"Jordan already has 1.3 million Syrians. Our country has reached its maximum capacity. Jordan has been shouldering this responsibility, and I must say, we've been doing so alone," Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said on Thursday. 

Deraa is considered the cradle of the anti-government uprising that erupted in Syria in March 2011, after a series of arrests sparked protests that spread across the country.

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Read more on:    un  |  syria  |  human rights
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