A five-hour truce called by Russia started on Tuesday in the Syrian rebel-held eastern Ghouta near Damascus with the stated aim of allowing people to escape the area which is being targeted in a fierce offensive by the Moscow-backed government.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the daily truce from 9 AM to 2 PM (0700 GMT to 1200 GMT) and the creation of a “humanitarian corridor” to let civilians leave the area, where government bombardment has killed hundreds since February 18.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said calm had generally prevailed in the eastern Ghouta since midnight, though four rockets had hit the town of Douma in the morning.

The Russian defence ministry said on Monday the measures, decided in agreement with Syrian forces, were intended to help civilians leave and to evacuate the sick and wounded. But the spokesman for Failaq al-Rahman, one of the main rebel groups in the eastern Ghouta, accused Russia of presenting people with the choice of forced displacement or being killed in bombardment and siege, and called this a “Russian crime”.

Eastern Ghouta is the last major stronghold near Damascus for rebels battling to topple President Bashar al–Assad, who has driven insurgents from numerous areas with military backing from Russia and Iran.

Escalated fighting

A UN Security Council resolution passed on Saturday had demanded a 30-day truce across Syria. Fighting has escalated on several fronts in Syria this year. As Assad has pressed the offensive against eastern Ghouta, Turkey has launched an incursion against Kurdish fighters in the northwestern Afrin region.

Tensions have also flared between Iran and Israel, which is deeply alarmed by Tehran’s expanding influence in Syria. Syrian air defences shot down an Israeli F–16 earlier this month as it returned from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria.

The Syrian war, which is approaching its eighth year, has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven half of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million people from their homes.