White House accuses Russia of killing civilians in Syria's Ghouta region

WASHINGTON, March 4 (Reuters) - The United States on Sunday made its strongest accusation to date of Moscow's complicity in civilian deaths in Syria's besieged eastern Ghouta region, saying Russian aircraft flew bombing missions in defiance of a United Nations ceasefire.

The White House said Russian military aircraft took off from Humaymim Airfield in Syria and carried out at least 20 daily bombing missions in Damascus and eastern Ghouta between Feb. 24 and Feb. 28.

It did not say whether the jets dropped ordnance, which could be harder to determine than tracking the flight paths of Russian aircraft on U.S. radar. But the United States directly accused Russia of killing civilians.

"Russia has gone on to ignore (a U.N. ceasefire's) terms and to kill innocent civilians under the false auspices of counter-terrorism operations," the White House said in a statement.

RELATED: Fighting in Syria's Ghouta region

16 PHOTOS
Fighting in Syria's Ghouta region
See Gallery
Fighting in Syria's Ghouta region
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / Smoke rises from buildings following bombardment on the village of Mesraba in the rebel-held besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed dozens of civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / Hamza Al-Ajweh (Photo credit should read HAMZA AL-AJWEH/AFP/Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / Syrian Mohammed cries as he receives treatment at a make-shift hospital in Kafr Batna after being wounded with his mother in government air strikes on the town of Jisreen, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed dozens of civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / Ammar SULEIMAN (Photo credit should read AMMAR SULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian civil defence member carries an injured child rescued from between the rubble of buildings following government bombing in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed 44 civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A picture taken on February 17, 2018 shows a man walking next to another pushing a bicycle loaded with a carpet, down a rain-soaked street past damaged and destroyed buildings in the Syrian rebel-held enclave of Arbin in the Eastern Ghouta near the capital Damascus. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian man stands amid the rubble of buildings following government bombing in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed 44 civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / Syrian children cry at a make-shift hospital in Douma following air strikes on the Syrian village of Mesraba in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed dozens of civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / Hamza Al-Ajweh (Photo credit should read HAMZA AL-AJWEH/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian civilian inspects the damage following government bombing in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed 44 civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian civilians look at the rubble following government bombing in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed 44 civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian man carries a child injured in government bombing in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed 44 civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - FEBRUARY 17: Children are seen at the debris of buildings after Assad Regime's airstrikes and ground attacks to Harasta town, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria on February 17, 2018. (Photo by Mouneb Taim/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A Syrian man carries an infant injured in government bombing in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed 44 civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke rises from buildings in a rebel-held area of Harasta in Eastern Ghouta following government shelling on February 20, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian man carries an infant injured in government bombing in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 19, 2018. Heavy Syrian bombardment killed 44 civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, as regime forces appeared to prepare for an imminent ground assault. / AFP PHOTO / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
Children are inspect damages on a street in the besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria February 11, 2018.REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh
DAMASCUS, SYRIA - FEBRUARY 17: Debris of buildings are seen after Assad Regime's airstrikes and ground attacks to Harasta town, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria on February 17, 2018. (Photo by Mouneb Taim/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad vowed on Sunday to continue the offensive in eastern Ghouta, one of the deadliest in the war. A local insurgent group called it a "scorched earth" campaign.

With the war entering its eighth year, capturing eastern Ghouta would be a major victory for Assad, who has steadily regained control of rebel areas with Russian and Iranian support.

Government shelling and air strikes have killed 659 people in eastern Ghouta since Feb. 18, while rebel shelling of Damascus has killed 27, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Friday that Syrian government air strikes on eastern Ghouta and shelling from the rebel-held zone into Damascus probably constitute war crimes.

The White House called on pro-Assad forces to "immediately cease targeting medical infrastructure and civilians."

Russia and Damascus have accused rebels of preventing civilians from leaving eastern Ghouta during daily ceasefires. Rebels have consistently denied the accusation and say people will not leave because they fear the government.

The multi-sided war has killed hundreds of thousands of people since 2011. (Reporting by Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Read Full Story