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Trapped in Syria’s besieged Ghouta: life has ceased, the children are waiting to die

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The conflict in Syria has dragged on a year longer than World War II now, and is only getting worse in places like rebel-held Eastern Ghouta – where bombs, rockets and shells continue to rain down on a terrified population. 

“The situation can only be described as catastrophic,” Abd, a 28-year-old voluntary rescue worker with the Syrian Civil Defense, otherwise known as “The White Helmets,” told Fox News on Thursday. “Continuous, continuous shelling at every moment. Life has ceased. Civilians – the women and the children – are waiting for death.”

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Children make up more than half the population in Eastern Ghouta, and are among the casualties.

 (Syrian Civil Defense )

An estimated 400,000 people are currently trapped inside Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus. More than half are said to be children, and almost all are in dire need of humanitarian aid. More than 400 have been reported killed, and almost 2,000 wounded in the last week alone. 

“Hundreds of bombs are dropping on us, there have been 300 airstrikes in the past three days,” Firas Abdullah, a 24-year-old opposition activist and aid worker, told Fox News on Thursday afternoon from his basement in the Eastern Ghouta town of Douma. “People are suffering from their wounds. We can hear the crying and the screaming of the women and children in their homes.”

Syrian and Russian warplanes have taken part in the bombing, according to Abdullah, who said there have also been drone strikes. 

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The search for suvivors in war-torn Eastern Ghouta, Syria this week.

 (Syrian Civil Defense )

“For 24 hours a day they are capturing everything about where all the civilians are, filming where the crowded places are, he continued. “Because it is civilians they want to kill.”

There are few medical professionals left to tend to the injured, activists say. 

The bombing campaign escalated on Feb. 4, according to reports, and among its targets hit many medical clinics. More than a dozen such facilities have been struck in just the last week. As a result, there aren’t enough medical professionals left to tend to the injured. 

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Activists say there are few medical facilities left to treat the wounded.

 (Msallam Abd Albaset)

“Most of the victims are women, children and the elderly. They have been in their basements for more than three days, the barrel bombs are penetrating small buildings, and killing people even in these basements,” said Khaled Almilaji, CEO and Chairman of the Sustainable International Medical Relief Organization (SIMRO), a non-partisan foundation focused on suppling public health services to war-torn parts of Syria. 

Photographs and videos obtained by Fox News show hauntingly empty streets in Ghouta, as families bunker down in ad-hoc underground caves and shelters. Already dwindling supplies of rice and water are fast disappearing. And broken bodies lay dead beneath the rubble, as tiny bloodied children are carted from their decimated homes on makeshift stretchers.

“Most people eat once a day and some eat every other day, mostly just vegetables and rice if they can find it,” said Abd. “Schools have been suspended for more than two months due to the shelling. We need international action to save the remaining civilians.”

For those trapped inside, there seems nowhere to flee.

“Anyone who tries to leave will get shot by snipers,” Abdullah said. “We are stuck on an island here. I want to demand the world helps us in a humanitarian way. What is happening in Eastern Ghouta is a genocide.”

Aid agencies have complained for months that they have not been able to reach the hardest-hit areas, and are calling for an urgent ceasefire.

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The death count in the seven-year Syrian conflict rose by more than 300 this week in Eastern Ghouta alone.

 (Syrian Civil Defense )

“We have warehouses and trucks of supplies ready to go, but we need a humanitarian pause in the fighting and the government needs to give us facilitation,” Jan Egeland, Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) told Fox News. “We are hoping to get an agreement for something to start this weekend. We have not been able to get any convoys into Eastern Ghouta since November.”

During most of 2017, Egeland said aid workers were often held at gunpoint by pro-regime forces, and forced to remove medical supplies from their vehicles – everything from scissors and surgical items to trauma care equipment – under the premise they did not want wounded rebel soldiers to be treated.

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Youssef Sadaki, a Syrian political and social investigator with the Orient Research Center, concurred the wounded of Ghouta simply have no place to go. Few emergency rooms are operable, and the only supplies permitted to enter in months came 10 days ago in the form of a small UN convoy. The convoy was able to provide basic supplies to some 8,000 people – a mere two percent of the population.

The U.S. State Department expressed “deep concern” over the increasing violence this week, condemning the Syrian and Russian governments for their actions. The White House said Washington endorsed the UN’s plea for a ceasefire to allow aid and medical supplies to enter.

Smoke rises from the rebel held besieged town of Hamouriyeh, eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, Syria, February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh - RC12501BE200

The escalation this week in Eastern Ghouta is being described as the worst point of the Syrian War

 (REUTERS)

The attacks have not been one-sided. Egeland said rebels in Eastern Ghouta have fired some 800 rockets into government-held territory in Damascus – some of that prior to the uptick in the air assault. Eastern Ghouta had previously been designated as a “de-escalation zone,” and was thus designed to be a safe zone. But that’s not how it has held up. 

The Assad government deems all opposition forces to be “terrorists,” and insists they are targeting dangerous jihadist groups, and not civilians. Russia – Assad’s ally and protector – asserts “illegal armed formations” had rejected demands to lay down their arms.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called accusations they were complicit in civilian deaths “unsubstantiated.” The governments in Damascus and Moscow have also denied claims of using barrel bombs against civilians.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (2nd L) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (2nd R) meet with servicemen as they visit the Hmeymim air base in Latakia Province, Syria December 11, 2017.  Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik via REUTERS  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. - UP1EDCB14EK3N

Syrian President Assad and supporter, Russian President Putin, vow they are battling “terrorists” inside Eastern Ghouta

Civilians in Eastern Ghouta also told Fox News they are surrounded by Iran-backed, pro-Assad militia groups. Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, this week conceded to the BBC that Iranian troops were in Syria to battle “terrorist elements.”

But Abd, of the White Helmets, staunchly rebuffed assertions that Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups like Al-Nusra were operating inside the besieged region as “propaganda.”

“They are killing us under the name of killing Al-Nusra,” he lamented. “But there are not here.”

 

Hollie McKay has been a FoxNews.com staff reporter since 2007. She has reported extensively from the Middle East on the rise and fall of terrorist groups such as ISIS in Iraq. Follow her on twitter at @holliesmckay



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Donald Trump’s farewell address: ‘Our movement is only just beginning’ | US News

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Donald Trump will say he will “pray for the success” of Joe Biden’s administration in his farewell address later but that the political movement he created “is only just beginning”.

Before he leaves office tomorrow, the outgoing president said everyone in the US had been “horrified” by the rioting at the Capitol in Washington DC earlier this month.

In extracts released by the White House, he said: “Political violence is an attack on everything we cherish as Americans. It can never be tolerated.”

He added: “As I prepare to hand power over to a new administration at noon on Wednesday, I want you to know that the movement we started is only just beginning.”

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Mr Trump also said he would pray for the success of the new administration in keeping America safe and prosperous, but he did not mention Joe Biden by name.

He went on: “Our agenda was not about right or left, it wasn’t about Republican or Democrat, but about the good of a nation, and that means the whole nation.”

He said his administration had “restored American strength at home – and American leadership abroad”, and it “built the greatest economy in the history of the world”.

Under his leadership, Mr Trump claimed the US had “revitalised our alliances and rallied the nations of the world to stand up to China like never before”.

And he said: “As a result of our bold diplomacy and principled realism, we achieved a series of historic peace deals in the Middle East. It is the dawn of a new Middle East and we are bringing our soldiers home.”

He also said he was “especially proud” to be the first president in decades who has “started no new wars”.

Mr Trump will not attend tomorrow’s inauguration – the first outgoing president to skip the ceremony since Andrew Johnson more than a century and a half ago.

Before leaving the state of Delaware where he was a senator for decades, Mr Biden addressed dozens of supporters in an emotional sendoff.

As the US exceeded 400,000 coronavirus deaths, the president-elect said: “These are dark times. But there’s always light.”

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COVID-19: ‘Real-world’ analysis of vaccine in Israel raises questions about UK strategy | World News

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The first real-world analysis of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine suggests it is matching its performance in clinical trials, but raises serious questions about the UK’s decision to delay the second dose.

Scientists in Israel – which is leading the COVID-19 vaccination race – have told Sky News that they are “very hopeful” having studied preliminary data from 200,000 vaccinated people.

But crucially they say their results do not show efficacy at a level close to that used by the UK to justify delaying the second dose of the Pfizer jab.

Care home staff receive the Pfizer/BioNtech covid-19 vaccine in Belfast
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The UK has chosen to delay the second dose of the jab

Professor Balicer is a physician, epidemiologist and chief innovation officer for Clalit, the largest health care provider in Israel. He is also an adviser to the World Health Organisation.

“We compared 200,000 people above the age of 60 that were vaccinated. We took a comparison group of 200,000 people, same age, not vaccinated, that were matched to this group on various variables…” prof Balicer said.

“Then we looked to see what is the daily positivity rate… And we saw that there was no difference between vaccinated and unvaccinated until day 14 post-vaccination.

Ran Balicer
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Ran Balicer is an adviser to the World Health Organisation

“But on day 14 post-vaccination, a drop of 33% in positivity was witnessed in the vaccinated group and not in the unvaccinated… this is really good news.”

However, UK scientists said in December that trial data had suggested it would be 89% effective after one dose.

A document issued by the UK government’s vaccine advisers, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, to justify delaying the second dose for up to 12 weeks said: “Using data for those cases observed between day 15 and 21, efficacy against symptomatic COVID-19 was estimated at 89%, suggesting that short term protection from dose 1 is very high from day 14 after vaccination.”

This is much more optimistic than the new real-world Israeli data suggests.

Responding to the UK government strategy, prof Balicer said: “The data and estimates I gave are what we have.

“We could not see 89% reduction in the data we reported. Further data and analyses will be released in peer reviewer scientific format.”

He added: “The practise in Israel is to provide the second vaccine at three weeks.

Ronni Gamzu
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Ronni Gamzu said he understood why compromises have to be made

“And so it is impossible for us to tell what would be the impact of not providing the second dose…”

Israel is following Pfizer protocol in giving the second dose of the coronavirus vaccine three weeks after the first.

It has a smaller population and a regular supply from Pfizer. In return it’s providing detailed data to Pfizer.

In contrast, the UK with a much larger population is prioritising the first jab – arguing that one dose given to as many people as possible is better than two to fewer people.

“We have already covered some 25% of our population and over 75% above the age of 60 in the last four and a half weeks.

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One-in-five Israelis now vaccinated

“And so we are one of the first countries to be able to witness the sheer impact in big numbers of vaccinating such a large proportion of the population,” prof Balicer said.

“By being able to manipulate this data in real time, to clean it and to use proper epidemiological methodology, we are able to provide answers to the most pertinent questions right now.”

The Israeli scientists believe their 33% figure will rise when data is compiled from younger age groups and the fact that the data is real-life adds to their confidence.

“This is not the ideal setting of a randomised controlled trial where everything from coaching maintenance to selection of the population of interest is done in a very meticulous way.

“This is the real-world. And so by seeing the real world impact so early on in the same direction and in the same timing as we’ve seen in the clinical trials is something that makes us very hopeful.”

Israel's vaccination programme has been a real success story
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Israel’s vaccination programme has been a real success story

Tel Aviv’s Sourasky hospital, one of hundreds of vaccination centres, is inoculating hundreds of people an hour.

Ronni Gamzu is the hospital director. He served as the government “corona tsar” – a rotating advisory role – until last month.

“I believe, truly believe, this is the beginning of the end because the vaccine creates the immune response.

“We see that clearly and we see a change in the people that are becoming severely ill with coronavirus and moderately ill. People that have got the vaccine are more protected,” professor Gamzu said.

Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives his vaccination
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Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives his vaccination

Asked about the UK strategy of delaying the second dose, he said the 89% figure seemed “very optimistic” but understood why compromises needed to be made.

“If you are short of vaccines, this is a good idea… We believe that if you take the booster shot, even after six weeks, then you will have an effect, the effect is coming and growing gradually.

“We do not know that for sure because the studies were done for 21 days for Pfizer and 28 days for Moderna. But there is a clear logic behind postponing it when you are short on vaccines.”

In a previous statement on the decision, the JCVI said: “With most vaccines an extended interval between the prime and booster doses leads to a better immune response to the booster dose.

“There is evidence that a longer interval between the first and second doses promotes a stronger immune response with the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“There is currently no strong evidence to expect that the immune response from the Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca vaccines differ substantially from each other.

“The committee advises initially prioritising delivery of the first vaccine dose as this is highly likely to have a greater public health impact in the short term and reduce the number of preventable deaths from COVID-19.”

Sky News has contacted the JCVI for comment.

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US National Guard troops removed from inauguration duty due to ‘far right’ links, reports | US News

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Two US Army National Guard members have been removed from duty during Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration because of ties to far-right militias, according to Associated Press.

A US Army official and a senior US intelligence official confirmed the decision to AP on the condition of anonymity due to Defense Department media regulations.

They did not say what fringe group the Guard members belonged to or what unit they served in.

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A spokesman for the National Guard Bureau told AP: “Due to operational security, we do not discuss the process nor the outcome of the vetting process for military members supporting the inauguration.”

The heightened security comes after the riots on 6 January when Donald Trump supporters stormed the Capitol Building.

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