UN to vote Saturday on humanitarian cease-fire in Syria

Whether Russia will veto or abstain in the vote remains to be seen.

FILE - This Oct. 19, 2017, image from drone video, shows damaged buildings in Raqqa, Syria, two days after Syrian Democratic Forces said military operations to oust the Islamic State group ended. A U.S. military official says that the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in January 2018 captured two notorious British members of an Islamic State insurgent cell commonly dubbed “The Beatles” and known for beheading hostages. (AP Photo/Gabriel Chaim)

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. Security Council delayed a vote on a resolution demanding a 30-day humanitarian cease-fire across Syria until Saturday in hopes of closing a gap over the timing for a halt to fighting.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia has called an immediate cease-fire unrealistic, and in an apparent bid to get Russian support, sponsors Kuwait and Sweden amended the draft resolution to drop a demand that the cease-fire take effect 72 hours after the resolution’s adoption.

Instead, the new text circulated Friday night “demands that all parties cease hostilities without delay.”

Earlier, after six hours of negotiations, Kuwait’s U.N. Ambassador Mansour Al-Otaiba, the current council president, told reporters Friday evening that members “are so close” to agreement, and negotiations are continuing.

He said the council will meet at noon EST on Saturday and there will be a vote.

The latest draft resolution says a cease-fire must be followed immediately by access for humanitarian convoys and medical teams to evacuate the critically ill and wounded.

It states that 5.6 million people in 1,244 communities are in “acute need,” including 2.9 million in hard-to-reach and besieged locations.

A Russian-proposed amendment, which the sponsors rejected, would have ruled out an immediate cease-fire. Instead, it would have demanded that all parties “stop hostilities as soon as possible” and work for a “humanitarian pause” for at least 30 days.

Sweden’s U.N. Ambassador Olof Skoog echoed Al-Otaiba, telling reporters that council members have been “very, very close” to agreement — “but we have not been able to close the gap completely.”

“We all agree there needs to be a cease-fire and it has to be urgent, immediately,” he said. “There are still some discussions on exactly how to define that. So that’s what we’re working on.”

Skoog said he was “extremely frustrated” that the council was unable to adopt the resolution on Thursday or Friday because the situation on the ground is dire and demands immediate council action.

U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who did not participate in Friday’s negotiations, tweeted: “Unbelievable that Russia is stalling a vote on a ceasefire allowing humanitarian access in Syria. How many more people will die before the Security Council agrees to take up this vote?”

Sweden and Kuwait, and their council supporters, have been pressing for immediate action as deaths mount in a Syrian bombing campaign in the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus known as eastern Ghouta.

“It is about saving lives,” Sweden’s Skoog said earlier. “U.N. convoys and evacuation teams are ready to go. It’s time for the council to come together and shoulder its responsibility to urgently avert a situation that is beyond words in its desperation.”

The draft resolution would authorize one exemption from the cease-fire.

It would allow attacks directed at extremists from the Islamic State group and all al-Qaida affiliates including the Nusra Front to continue. The Syrian government and its Russian allies say they are pursuing Islamic extremists they call “terrorists” — and U.S.-backed forces are also going after IS and al-Qaida militants.

The latest draft resolution does include several other Russian proposals.

It stresses the need for “guarantees” from countries with influence on government and opposition forces to support and create conditions for a lasting cease-fire. The sponsors also added language expressing “outrage” at the shelling of Damascus, including on diplomatic premises, which is a proposal Russia wanted.

Earlier this week, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged an immediate suspension of “all war activities” in eastern Ghouta, where he said 400,000 people are living “in hell on earth.”

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