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Aleppo battle: Raids on Syria city 'likely a war crime' UN says

Syrian pro-government forces advance in the Jisr al-Haj neighbourhood during the ongoing military operation to retake remaining rebel-held areas in the northern embattled city of Aleppo on December 14, 2016 Image copyright AFP/Getty Images

The bombing of the last parts of Aleppo held by rebels is probably a war crime, the UN’s human rights chief says.

A deal to evacuate rebel fighters and civilians from eastern Aleppo on Wednesday has stalled, with heavy shelling reported in the Syrian city.

Syrian activists say air strikes resumed over rebel-held territory, where at least 50,000 civilians remain.

The raids by the Syrian government and its allies most likely violates international law, the UN said.

The renewed violence came despite a ceasefire agreed less than 24 hours earlier.

Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the Syrian government had “a clear responsibility to ensure its people are safe”.

In a statement, he said: “The way this deal was dangled in front of this battered and beleaguered population – causing them to hope they might indeed live to see another day – and then snatched away just half a day later is also outrageously cruel.”

Meanwhile, the BBC has learned that Western forces are using satellites and unmanned aircraft to gather evidence of possible war crimes in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria.

The latest on the ground

Eastern Aleppo has been held by the rebels since 2012. But they have been squeezed into ever-smaller areas in recent months by a major government offensive, backed by Russian air power.

In recent weeks, government troops have made sweeping gains. Russia’s military said on Wednesday that rebels were confined to only 2.5 sq km of the city.

Image copyright AFP/Getty Images

Under the evacuation deal brokered by Russia and Turkey, civilians and rebels from eastern Aleppo were to be allowed to go to rebel-held areas in northern Syria.

Fighting ceased late on Tuesday, but evacuations scheduled for 05:00 (03:00 GMT) on Wednesday did not go ahead, and buses left empty.

Fresh shelling was reported several hours later.

The breakdown of the deal is being attributed to demands from the government side.

It is said to be seeking the evacuation of injured fighters and civilians from nearby towns encircled by opposition forces.

“The clashes are violent and bombardment is very heavy… it seems as though everything [the ceasefire] is finished,” Rami Abdulrahman, director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) monitoring group, said.

The SOHR also said aircraft had resumed bombing in rebel-held areas.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Syria’s government had been happy to allow safe passage to rebel fighters, but that the rebels had refused a ceasefire.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Syrian forces of breaking the deal and called the situation in Aleppo “very fragile”. He said civilians had to be allowed to leave.

The residents still under siege

Media captionBombs interrupt interview as Zouhir Alshimale, a journalist in east Aleppo, says there is nowhere to go that is safe

Besieged residents have faced weeks of bombardment and chronic food and fuel shortages. Medical facilities in the city have largely been reduced to rubble.

Some information continues to emerge from besieged areas:

  • Ibrahim Abu-Laith, a spokesman for the White Helmets volunteer rescue group, said more than 40 people were injured in eastern Aleppo
  • One resident, Zohair, told the BBC there was total chaos. “We don’t know how many casualties there are and if there is anyone to help them”
  • “Bombing is ongoing, no one can move,” one activist, Mohammad al-Khatib told AFP. “The wounded and dead are lying in the street. No one dares to try and retrieve the bodies”

Media caption“Here comes the barrel bomb” – trapped resident Joud al-Khatib in Aleppo

Residents say they fear reprisals from government forces or being forcibly conscripted. There have also been reports of atrocities.

On Tuesday the UN said it had received reliable evidence of summary executions taking place, saying that in four areas 82 civilians were killed by pro-government forces. It said that many more may have died.

Syria’s government and Russia said the allegations were untrue.

How many people are in eastern Aleppo?

It is not clear exactly how many people remain in the besieged areas. UN envoy Staffan de Mistura put the figure at about 50,000.

He said there were approximately 1,500 rebel fighters, about 30% of whom were from the jihadist group formerly known as the al-Nusra Front.

Other local sources say there could be as many as 100,000 people, many of them arriving from areas recently taken by the government.


High stakes – by Sebastian Usher, BBC Middle East analyst

The deal to evacuate rebel fighters and civilians out of eastern Aleppo is only the latest and most complex of such arrangements. It is also the one with the highest stakes.

Rebel-held towns in a ring around Damascus have one by one ceded in similar ways.

The choreography often follows the same pattern, with buses waiting hours or days at evacuation points as final guarantees on both sides are hammered out. Safe passage to the rebel-held province of Idlib has also been part of such deals.

More rarely, the agreements have involved reciprocal evacuations from government areas encircled by rebels. That now seems to have been made part of this deal, complicating it further.

The violence has resumed, but that does not mean that the deal is off. The rebels have reached a point of no return. Many more lives may be lost in the meantime, but it is all but certain that the fighters will leave Aleppo.



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