Syria army pounds Aleppo rebels as Russia vows no let-up

2016-12-09 22:59
Smoke rises after rebel fighters launch a mortar shell on residential neighborhood in west Aleppo, Syria. (File, Hassan Ammar, AP)

Smoke rises after rebel fighters launch a mortar shell on residential neighborhood in west Aleppo, Syria. (File, Hassan Ammar, AP)

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Aleppo  -Syrian warplanes launched fresh raids on the last rebel-held districts in Aleppo on Friday, as key regime ally Russia vowed the assault would continue until opposition fighters left the battleground city.

Government strikes had halted briefly from Thursday night, when Moscow announced a pause in the regime's offensive to allow the evacuation of civilians, though artillery fire did not stop.

Syria's army is three weeks into a battle to retake east Aleppo from rebels who are now confined to just a few neighbourhoods in their former bastion.

The city's loss would be the biggest blow for the rebels in the nearly six-year-old war, which has killed more than 300 000 people and displaced over half the country's population.

Tens of thousands of civilians have fled east Aleppo in recent weeks, though the United Nations said on Friday it had received reports that rebels had blocked some residents from leaving.

It also expressed concern about reports that hundreds of men had gone missing after fleeing to government-held territory.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, reported at least a dozen air strikes on rebel-held neighbourhoods on Friday afternoon.

Artillery fire had continued throughout Thursday night and into Friday after Moscow's announcement, the monitor and an AFP correspondent reported.

Syria's army has captured around 85% of east Aleppo, with rebels and remaining civilians confined to a shrinking space in increasingly grim conditions.

East Aleppo has been encircled by the regime since mid-July, with international aid provisions exhausted and remaining food supplies dwindling even before the government assault began in mid-November.

Bodies in the streets

An AFP correspondent in east Aleppo said it had become increasingly difficult to find food because shopkeepers were too afraid to open and sell their meagre wares under the heavy government fire.

He said fleeing civilians had seen bodies lying uncollected in the streets of one neighbourhood because the intensity of the bombardment made it too dangerous to retrieve the dead.

Diplomatic efforts to reach a ceasefire have floundered, despite repeated discussions between Washington and Moscow, which back opposing sides in the conflict.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday he hoped a truce deal could be reached soon, and Russian and US officials are to meet Saturday in Geneva.

But Lavrov added military operations in the city would continue so long as rebels remained in Aleppo.

"After a humanitarian pause, (the strikes) have resumed and will continue for as long as the bandits are still in Aleppo," he told journalists in Germany.

Rebels earlier this week called for a ceasefire and the safe passage of civilians to opposition-held territory elsewhere in Aleppo province.

But Syria's government and Moscow have rejected the possibility of opposition fighters remaining in the city, and Lavrov said the plan being discussed envisions disarmed rebels leaving the city with civilians.

Tens of thousands of civilians have already left the east of the city for the regime-held west or districts controlled by Kurdish forces.

Disappearances reported

On Friday, the UN said it had received reports that some armed groups were preventing residents from leaving and that government forces had arrested some of those who fled to regime territory.

"While it's very difficult to establish the facts in such a fluid and dangerous situation, we have received very worrying allegations that hundreds of men have gone missing after crossing into government-controlled areas," UN rights office spokesperson Rupert Colville told reporters in Geneva.

He said the men were between the ages of 30 and 50, and their family members said they had lost contact with them after they fled opposition-controlled areas of Aleppo around a week or 10 days ago.

"Given the terrible record of arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearances by the Syrian government, we are of course deeply concerned about the fate of these individuals," Colville said.

He said the UN had also received reports of civilians in the east being "prevented from leaving" as well as reprisals against residents who asked armed groups to leave their districts.

Groups including al-Qaeda's former affiliate had reportedly "abducted and killed an unknown number of civilians who requested the armed groups to leave their neighbourhoods," he said.

At least 409 civilians, including 45 children have been killed in the government's assault, according to the Observatory.

The monitor says another 113 people, including 35 children, have been killed by rebel fire on western Aleppo in the same period.

The UN General Assembly was to vote later Friday on a non-binding resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire in Syria and humanitarian aid access.

But the document was not expected to have much effect, with Britain's ambassador describing it as "too little, too late".

Read more on:    russia  |  syria  |  syria conflict

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