Refugees

Humanitarian catastrophe looms as regime siege continues in Daraa

By Al-Mashareq and AFP

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A photograph taken August 16 shows the remains of a mortar shell in Daraa al-Balad district, deserted after fighting between Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups in Daraa province. [Sam Hariri/AFP]

BEIRUT -- Fighting between government forces and former opposition fighters in Daraa, Syria, has displaced more than 38,000 residents over the past month, the United Nations (UN) said Tuesday (August 24).

Daraa, retaken by Russian-backed Syrian troops and allied forces in 2018, has emerged as a new flashpoint in recent weeks as government forces tightened control over Daraa al-Balad, a southern district of the provincial capital that still houses ex-opposition fighters.

Clashes, including artillery exchanges, between the two sides since late July have marked the biggest challenge yet to the Russian-brokered deal that returned the southern province to government control but allowed opposition fighters to stay on in some areas.

Russian-sponsored truce talks launched in the wake of the latest fighting had made little headway over the past 10 days.

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Almost half of the population of opposition-held Daraa al-Balad district has fled heavy shelling and ground battles, but the United Nations warns that remaining civilians are cut off with dwindling supplies. [Sam Hariri/AFP]

But on Tuesday, it appeared that the warring parties had agreed to a deal, as opposition fighters boarded buses to take them to opposition-held territory in the north, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The evacuations are a main part of the ceasefire accord that also calls on opposition fighters who stay in the province to hand over their weapons, the Observatory said.

Forces linked to the Syrian regime are expected to deploy inside Daraa al-Balad under the agreement.

The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that 38,600 internally displaced persons are registered in and around Daraa, with most having fled from Daraa al-Balad.

"This includes almost 15,000 women, over 3,200 men and elderly, and over 20,400 children," OCHA said.

It warned of a critical situation in the volatile district, saying that access to goods and services, including food and power, is "extremely challenging".

Deteriorating situation

Government forces are restricting the entry of goods into Daraa al-Balad, where 40,000 people still live, the Observatory said.

"They are living under siege with families facing shortages of food, medical services, potable water, power and internet," it said.

"The humanitarian situation is alarmingly deteriorating in light of the astronomically inflated prices of fuel," the Observatory said, noting that the price of a cylinder of gas now equals double the monthly salary of a government employee.

The areas worst hit by the two-month siege are Daraa al-Balad, al-Sadd camp and Tariq al-Sadd neighbourhood.

Last Saturday, regime forces and the 4th Division -- led by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brother, Maher al-Assad -- brought in numerous military reinforcements who were deployed in several areas across Daraa, the Observatory said.

Hundreds of soldiers had arrived in the region in previous days, it said.

Many in Daraa al-Balad reject the truce terms being set by the government and its Russian ally, the Observatory said.

The pro-government al-Watan newspaper and the official SANA news agency have accused opposition groups of thwarting ceasefire efforts.

The exact terms of the proposed truce remain unclear.

UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen on Tuesday warned the UN Security Council of a pressing need for humanitarian assistance.

"We repeat our calls on all parties to end the violence immediately," he said.

"Immediate, safe and unimpeded humanitarian access is needed to all affected areas and communities, including Daraa al-Balad."

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