By Peter Kenny
GENEVA (AA) - The UN human rights chief sounded the alarm on Thursday for civilians in the southern Syrian city of Daraa that is experiencing intense fighting and indiscriminate shelling by regime forces and armed opposition groups.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said the fighting is in and around Daraa, with the only route out strictly controlled by the Syrian regime.
"The stark picture emerging from Daraa al-Balad and other neighborhoods underscores how much at-risk civilians there are, repeatedly exposed to fighting and violence, and in effect under siege," said Bachelet.
"They are facing checkpoints, restrictions on their movements, tanks on the streets, and their property is being seized and stolen."
Regime forces and armed groups’ hostilities escalated at the end of July, with shelling and artillery strikes hitting residential areas.
It followed weeks of growing tension, during which the Bashar al-Assad regime imposed tighter controls on roads in and out of Daraa al-Balad, a former opposition stronghold, and other areas.
Bachelet's office said the aim was to pressure some members of armed groups to surrender, hand over their weapons, and relocate to northern Syria, and the regime forces have strengthened their military positions in Daraa al-Balad, stationing tanks in residential areas.
In recent days, they have only been allowing pedestrians out of Daraa al-Balad along the al-Saraya road, imposing strict security checks.
- Opposition counterattacks
Armed opposition groups have launched counterattacks on several areas in the rural Daraa governorate, reportedly capturing dozens of regime soldiers.
It is the most severe confrontation since 2018, when regime forces established control over Daraa following various Russian-brokered reconciliation deals, said the UN.
Last week, the UN documented that reported ground-based strikes killed at least eight civilians by both Syrian regime forces and armed groups.
Among those killed were five family members whose home was hit in the town of al-Yaduda in western rural Daraa.
At least one mortar shell launched by unidentified armed individuals hit and damaged the Daraa National Hospital in Daraa al-Mahatta.
The UN rights office also said that it had confirmed that the regime forces had seized and occupied several private homes in Shamal al-Khat, al-Panorama, and al-Sabeel in Daraa al-Mahatta.
They had expelled the occupants and are not allowing them to take any of their belongings, it added.
"These forces also stole money, mobile phones, and laptops during searches of at least nine private houses on 30 and 31 July in Daraa al-Mahatta," said the rights office.
The escalation in hostilities has forced at least 18,000 civilians to flee Daraa al-Balad since July 28, many of them to the Daraa city and nearby. These include several hundred people sheltering in schools in Daraa al-Mahatta.
Bachelet reminded those involved in the conflict that international humanitarian law is clear regarding the protection of civilians.
"Tanks in residential areas and a checkpoint set up in a house strongly suggest the necessary precautions are not being taken," the UN human rights chief stressed.
"There needs to be an immediate ceasefire to alleviate the suffering of civilians in Daraa."