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Nations Demand Cease-Fire in Idlib     02/28 06:18

   UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- The United States and key Western allies on Thursday 
demanded an immediate cease-fire in Syria's last opposition stronghold in 
northwestern Idlib which is facing what the U.N. calls an "unfolding 
humanitarian catastrophe," but Russia ignored their calls and said it will keep 
helping the government eliminate "terrorists" from Idlib.

   The standoff came at a U.N. Security Council meeting on Syria where the 
U.N.'s deputy humanitarian chief Ursula Mueller said almost 950,000 people have 
fled an advancing Syrian government offensive since it began on Dec. 1. She 
described a video conversation last week with 14 Syrian women in Idlib and 
northern Aleppo who are humanitarian workers and said what is happening "is 
beyond imagination" and "not humanly tolerable."

   "They told me of children so traumatized they no longer speak" and said the 
situation is so stressful that pregnant women are experiencing early 
deliveries, miscarriage and low-birth weights, Mueller said. The women also had 
a message: "All we are asking is for the misery to stop, for the killing to 
stop. We want the right to live."

   Henrietta Fore, the head of the U.N. children's agency UNICEF, said tens of 
thousands of those who have fled, more than half of them children, "are now 
living in makeshift tents, public buildings and in the open air, huddled under 
trees --- exposed to rain, snow and the sub-zero cold of a harsh Syrian 
winter," adding "we've heard and read reports of children freezing to death."

   In the northwest, she said, 180 schools are not operating and "286,000 
children have had their education cruelly snatched away."

   U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft, who called the reports from Idlib 
"stomach-turning," told the council: "If we are to end the humanitarian crisis 
in northwest Syria, we must concentrate all of our efforts on immediately 
establishing a durable and verifiable cease-fire --- one brokered by a fully 
empowered U.N."

   "This will require Russia to ground its planes at once and tell the (Syrian) 
regime to pull back its forces," she said.

   But Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia ignored cease-fire calls not 
only from the U.S. but from France, Germany, Britain, Belgium, Estonia and 
other council members.

   And he downplayed the humanitarian crisis.

   "We believe it was possible to predict this and prepare for this situation, 
especially regarding the winter period."

   Nebenzia said Turkey isn't providing any obstacles to cross-border 
deliveries to Idlib and humanitarian workers have plenty of supplies and funds 
"so why hasn't this problem been resolved?" 

   He also said the reason people are dying is from heaters catching fire in 
their temporary tents, rather than from freezing, and he urged humanitarian 
workers and the companies supplying the heaters to address the heater issue to 
prevent future deaths.

   More broadly, he said: "The only long-term solution to the problem of Idlib 
--- and to be frank of Syria as a whole --- is a final and irreversible 
expulsion from the country of all terrorists."

   Many countries have said there are only a small number of fighters.

   Britain's deputy U.N. ambassador Jonathan Allen noted that Russia's 
ambassador to the United Kingdom said in a media interview Wednesday "that 
terrorists make up one percent of the population of Idlib."

   "Even if there aren't very many fighters," Nebenzia said, "they are still 
capable of carrying out their atrocities across the entire province, so their 
number doesn't really matter. This is an irrelevant argument."

   Allen countered that "international law does not permit you to attack the 99 
percent to handle one percent." 

   France's U.N. Ambassador Nicolas De Riviere said the fight against terrorism 
shouldn't allow Syria and Russia "to indiscriminately strike all opponents, 
whether terrorists or not, and the civilian population in passing."

   And Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told the council: "Let me be 
clear: conducting counter-terrorism measures doesn't absolve anyone from 
respecting international humanitarian law." 

    "Indiscriminate attacks against civilians are war crimes," he said. "And 
those responsible must be held accountable."

   Maas said the Security Council should ensure humanitarian access and step up 
efforts to find a political solution.

   The six Western ambassadors on the Security Council joined by the Dominican 
Republic, Niger and Tunisia met Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday 
to press for U.N. action on Idlib.

   "We urgently request that the U.N. formally launch an immediate initiative 
to secure a cease-fire in northwest Syria in close consultation with the 
relevant parties and the U.N. Security Council," the nine ambassadors said in a 
statement obtained by The Associated Press.

   U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters Thursday the ongoing 
military operations and impact on civilians "highlight the clear and pressing 
need for an immediate ceasefire and to end to constant violations of 
international humanitarian law."

   "Without urgent action, the risk of even more catastrophic consequences is 
growing by the hour," Dujarric warned.


(KR)

 
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