Shelling kills five in opposition-held East Ghouta ahead of Sochi peace talks

Artillery shells hit Douma city on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Damascus Media Center.

AMMAN: Pro-government shelling killed five civilians in an opposition-held city northeast of Damascus on Sunday morning, a Civil Defense spokesman told Syria Direct, one day before scheduled Russian-hosted peace talks in Sochi.

An estimated ten shells fired by pro-government forces hit “residential areas and markets” in the city of Douma in the besieged, rebel-held East Ghouta suburbs on Sunday, local Civil Defense spokesman Siraj Mahmoud told Syria Direct. The bombing left five civilians dead, among them one woman and one child, he said.

The latest attacks come less than two days after the main Syrian opposition negotiating body announced it would boycott peace talks set to be held in the Russian city of Sochi on Monday.

The opposition High Negotiations Committee announced on this past Friday evening that it would not take part in the Sochi talks. The decision came at the end of two days of United Nations-sponsored talks between the Syrian government and opposition delegates in Vienna.

“We thought members of the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee would take part in the conference,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said via a statement posted to the Hmeimim Russian military base’s Facebook page on Saturday. Hmeimim, located in Syria’s coastal Latakia province, is the main Russian military base in the country. “But if they don’t wish to participate, others will do so,” she said.

Artillery shells hit Douma city on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Damascus Media Center.

Some 1,600 people “representing all segments of the Syrian society” are scheduled to attend the conference, Zakharova claimed.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres decided on Saturday that his Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, will be present in Sochi, according to a UN report.

“Mr. Guterres took into account Russia’s assertion that the outcome of the Sochi meeting…would be brought to Geneva as a contribution to the UN-backed intra-Syrian talks,” the report said.

It was not immediately clear which other parties to the conflict will be attending.

Alleged ceasefire

Sunday’s shelling in Douma city also took place despite reports on Friday that Syrian government and opposition representatives had agreed to a ceasefire in East Ghouta during the Vienna talks.

“The Syrian Army’s general command issued a directive calling for a cessation of hostilities…effective at midnight” in East Ghouta, Russian state-owned news outlet Sputnik reported on Friday, citing a “well-informed,” anonymous source.

Aftermath of pro-government shelling in Douma city on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Ghouta Media Center.

The Syrian government did not officially announce a new ceasefire over East Ghouta, which is already part of a de-escalation deal brokered by Iran and Russian last May. East Ghouta is one of four designated ceasefire zones across the country.

Despite its inclusion in the de-escalation deal, East Ghouta is facing a weeks-long assault by Syrian government troops and allied forces within a government offensive launched on December 29. Since then, pro-government bombardment has reportedly killed more than 200 civilians.

A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army faction Failaq a-Rahman, which controls roughly half of the East Ghouta pocket, told Syria Direct on Sunday that it had agreed to a ceasefire via an intermediary, under the condition that humanitarian aid enter the pocket.

Since the ceasefire allegedly took effect Friday night, however, “no assistance has entered, and the bombing has not ceased,” spokesman Wael Alwan said on Sunday.

Dozens of artillery shells, missiles and airstrikes fired by pro-government forces were documented by the Civil Defense since Friday, said Civil Defense Spokesman Mahmoud.