Japan Bans Journalist from Traveling to Syria as NGO Warns of Medical Shortages

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A Syrian man walks amid debris inside a heavily damaged building following reported airstrikes by army air forces in the rebel-held area of Douma, east of the capital Damascus, on February 9, 2015. AFP/Abd Doumany

Published Thursday, February 12, 2015

Syrian air force bombardment of a besieged rebel-held area east of Damascus has left poorly equipped doctors barely able to treat the wounded, a medical charity said Wednesday.

The ever-rising tension in the war that has engulfed the country for nearly four years has caused Japanese authorities to bar one of its photojournalists from traveling to Syria.

In the besieged Eastern Ghouta area, "the number of patients treated in the hospitals we support has gone beyond breaking point," said Dr. Bart Janssens, director of operations for Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

"The number of requests for medical supplies has shot up," he added.

While Eastern Ghouta has been bombed frequently during a lengthy and suffocating army siege, the strikes in recent weeks have been particularly devastating.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 183 people have been killed in raids in the past 10 days, most of them civilians. Among them were 29 children, the Britain-based group said.

MSF said the strikes hit two medical facilities on February 5, forcing staff and patients to evacuate.

"One nurse was killed on his way to work in a hospital on February 8," the international NGO said, adding that hundreds of wounded people have been treated at MSF-supported medical facilities in Eastern Ghouta in recent weeks.

The director of an MSF-supported hospital in Eastern Ghouta meanwhile described the aftermath of a January 23 bombing that hit a crowded market in the rebel-held town of Hammuriyeh. According to the Observatory, that bombing killed 42 people.

"Paramedics were running and bringing in more wounded people, so I realized there was a catastrophe going on," said the director, who identified himself only as Dr. N.

"Our hospital, like the majority of hospitals in the region, lacks basic equipment and medical consumables, and we have limited capacity for this sort of emergency, both in terms of space and beds," the medic said.

"The medical situation, and the general living conditions, are beyond any red lines."

The key rebel bastion on the outskirts of Damascus has been under siege for nearly two years, leading to food and medical shortages. Since mid-2012, the Syrian army has carried out frequent air raids there and on other on rebel-held areas.

Syria's conflict began as a peaceful revolt demanding democratic change, but evolved into a brutal war after government forces violently repressed demonstrators. Islamists have since poured into the country from all over the world, seeking to establish an “Islamic caliphate.”

More than 210,000 people have been reportedly killed since March 2011 and half of Syria’s population of 22 million has been forced to flee their homes.

This week, Syria saw a rise in battles between the Syrian army and armed opposition. On Tuesday, the army gained ground from rebels in the south, in what the monitor described as a large-scale offensive in the region backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters against insurgents which included members of al-Qaeda's Syrian wing.

The south is one of the last remaining areas where non-jihadist rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad have a foothold. Just a short drive to Damascus, the area remains a risk to the Syrian leader, who has otherwise consolidated control over much of the west.

The Observatory said the attacking forces spearheaded by Hezbollah had taken several hilltops and villages, and Syrian state television reported advances on Wednesday. A spokesman for a rebel group said they had lost ground, but described it as insignificant.

Securing the northern borders of the country, the Kurds and rebels recaptured the town of Kobane from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group on January 26 after four months of fierce fighting. They have since also reclaimed a third of the villages in the area.

Japanese photojournalist condemns his passport confiscation

Meanwhile, a Japanese journalist who had planned to visit Kobane accused his government of muzzling the press Thursday, after officials confiscated his passport to stop him from traveling to war-torn Syria.

Freelance photographer Yuichi Sugimoto, 58, said he will file an appeal over the move, and was prepared to take legal action to get his travel documents back.

"Losing my passport means losing my job as a freelance photographer," Sugimoto told reporters at a Tokyo press conference.

In the first such action against a journalist since Japan's modern constitution came into force seven decades ago, the foreign ministry last week took Sugimoto's passport to prevent him traveling, after learning of his plans to visit refugee camps in war-ravaged Syria.

The move came with Japan still reeling from the brutal murder of two citizens — war correspondent Kenji Goto and his friend Haruna Yukawa — by ISIS in Syria.

Sugimoto said he has two decades of experience in major conflict zones, including the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and had not planned on traveling to areas controlled by ISIS.

"I do not push myself to cross my red lines, which I have learned from my 20-year experience," he said.

He said ministry officials and policemen visited his apartment in Niigata, north of Tokyo this month and told him he would be arrested if he did not hand in his passport.

"I asked them when I would be able to get my passport back and they said they could keep it for an unlimited time," said Sugimoto. Officials also did not tell him how he could have his passport returned, he said.

"Not only do I want to get my passport back but I also worry that this could set a bad precedent for other journalists, and mean they might have their passports confiscated, which curtails the freedom of the press."

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said this week the government wants to respect the freedom of journalists to report but decided it must fulfil its duty to ensure the safety of Japanese nationals.

In a video purporting to portray Goto's killing, the group warned Japanese nationals would be targeted for further attacks.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed never to "give in to terrorism," saying Japan would continue humanitarian aid to countries battling ISIS and would bring the killers to justice.

(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

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