Assad is regaining control of a major Syrian city, countering predictions of his close demise, while his forces are committing atrocities in the process.
As Syrian forces poised for the final sweep to take the last rebel holdouts in eastern Aleppo on Tuesday, world leaders and aid agencies issued dramatic appeals that the lives of thousands of civilians who have “nowhere safe to run” be spared and that government troops fighting to capture what’s left of the rebel enclave refrain from atrocities.
The UN’s human rights office said it has received reports of pro-government forces killing at least 82 civilians in four neighborhoods of the increasingly-shrinking rebel enclave, including 11 women and 13 children.
Spokesman Rupert Colville said the reports recount pro-government forces entering homes and killing some civilians “on the spot” in the former rebel enclave. Speaking to reporters in Geneva, he said the reports came in late the previous evening and that he doesn’t know exactly when the killings took place.
The reports, which could not be independently confirmed, reinforce concerns of mass casualties in eastern Aleppo in the final hours of the battle for the city, which has been split into a rebel and government-held part since 2012.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement late Monday that he is alarmed over reports of “atrocities” against a large number of civilians, including women and children, in the past hours in Aleppo. While stressing that the United Nations is not able to independently verify these reports, the UN chief said he conveyed his grave concern to the relevant parties.
Bodies Scattered in the Street
Several residents and opposition activists have told The Associated Press that government forces were carrying out summary killings of rebels in the streets in neighborhoods captured on Monday, but the Syrian military flatly denied the claims, saying such allegations were “a desperate attempt” to try gain international sympathy.
Mohammed Abu Rajab, the administrator of the last remaining clinic in rebel-held parts of the city, said people killed and wounded are left on the streets.
Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said hundreds of bodies are still under the rubble.
A press release by the UN human rights office in Geneva said that multiple sources have reports that tens of civilians were shot dead on Monday in al-Ahrar Square in Kallaseh neighborhood, and also in Bustan al-Qasr, by government forces and their allies, including allegedly the Iraqi Shiite militia known as al-Nujabaa.
The dramatic appeals for sparing civilian lives came a day after the Syrian military announced it now holds 99 percent of the former rebel neighborhoods of Aleppo, signaling an impending end to the rebels’ four-year hold over parts of the city.
Retaking Aleppo would be President Bashar Assad’s biggest victory yet in the country’s civil war. Aleppo has long been regarded as a major gateway between Turkey and Syria.
But a government win in Aleppo does not end the conflict — significant parts of Syria are still outside government control and huge swaths of the country are a devastated waste-land. More than a quarter of a million people have been killed.
‘Nowhere Safe to Run’
The International Committee of the Red Cross also on Tuesday urged all fighting in Aleppo to spare civilian lives. It said that thousands of people in eastern Aleppo with no part in the violence “have literally nowhere safe to run.”
“In order for this to happen, we appeal to the parties to put humanity ahead of military objectives”, said ICRC’s head of delegation in Syria, Marianne Gasser, who is currently in Aleppo. “We stand ready to oversee the implementation of any mutual agreement that puts civilians first. We cannot urge this strongly enough: this must happen.”
In Moscow, which has been Assad’s major ally in the war, the Defense Ministry said Tuesday that rebels are holding out a neighborhood roughly the size of 3 square kilometers (1.16 square miles).
Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus’ called for an immediate cease-fire and if that is too late, he called on the international community, European countries, regional countries and Turkey to organize an international aid convoy to people in need in Aleppo.
French President Francois Hollande pressed for Russia to facilitate humanitarian aid to civilians trapped in rebel-held parts of the city, saying the Aleppo “humanitarian situation … is unacceptable.”
The French leader said 120,000 people were being “held hostage, there is no other word for it — who are victims of bombing, who are victims of repression” in Aleppo and that everything must be done to allow the population’s evacuation.
“Without the Russians, there is no Syrian regime that can carry out operations” on the scale of what is happening in Aleppo, Hollande added, saying that the Russians “will be responsible for a situation that they helped create if they do nothing to allow access for humanitarian aid.”