Sunday 25 February 2018

Aleppo sliding 'into hell' amid massacre fear

Syrians who evacuated eastern Aleppo gather to board buses in a government-held area. Photo: REUTERS
Syrians who evacuated eastern Aleppo gather to board buses in a government-held area. Photo: REUTERS

Bethan McKernan

Aleppo is experiencing a "descent into hell" amid warnings the city could witness one of the biggest massacres since World War II as President Bashar al-Assad's troops continue their brutal offensive.

After four months of siege and a bombing campaign which has brought rebel-held east Aleppo to its knees, civilians are fleeing across the front line in their thousands to escape Mr Assad's attempts to crush the city's rebels for good.

A sweeping advance by the Russian-backed Syrian army and allied militias has displaced thousands of people, the UN said, leaving residents unsure where to turn to for safety as the frontline fighting rapidly moves and rebels struggle to maintain control of key neighbourhoods. The true figure once those who have fled to government areas is included is likely to be much higher.

The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting on the humanitarian crisis in New York yesterday.

"France and its partners cannot remain silent in the face of what could be one of the biggest massacres of civilian population since World War II," the French UN ambassador, Francois Delattre, said ahead of that meeting.

Russia, meanwhile, claimed the air strikes and ground assault on east Aleppo have managed to "liberate" the area.

"Half of the territory in parts of eastern Aleppo occupied by militants in recent years has been completely freed," Russian defence ministry spokesman Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov said.

"Most importantly, more than 80,000 Syrians have been liberated, tens of thousands children. Many received for the first time water, food, medical care from Russian humanitarian centres.

"Our Western counterparts are showing surprising blindness when it is time to assess the real situation in Aleppo."

Activists on the ground, for their part, have condemned what they see as a continued silence from Western politicians in the face of what a World Food Programme spokesperson described as the city's "slow descent into hell".

Doctor Abdul, working out of a makeshift facility, said that the decimated medical services - east Aleppo has approximately 30 doctors left - were struggling to cope.

Another sent pictures to 'The Independent' of what he said were the bodies of casualties from overnight still lying on the streets.

Wissam Zarqa, a teacher and rebel activist, also sent WhatsApp recordings to journalists saying that while the opposition has managed to accommodate hundreds of fleeing families, tripling the occupancy of some buildings, the fate of many of those who crossed into government-held areas or stayed put as the Syrian army retook their neighbourhoods is unknown.

He is worried about two people he knows well who have been arrested. "Hopefully they will be OK but I am not optimistic about that now," he said.

Fear of arrest and interrogation by the army or Syria's infamous mukhabarat, or secret police, has long been one of the major factors stopping the 250,000 people trapped inside east Aleppo from leaving, despite regime and Russia exhortations it is safe do so.

Approximately 400,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict to date, the UN estimates, with more than half of the country's population driven from their homes. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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