Eastern Aleppo risks becoming "one giant graveyard"


The eastern part of the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo could become "one giant graveyard" UN humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien warned on Wednesday at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council.

The meeting came hours after 45 people died attempting to flee rebel-held areas in the city's east under shelling. Civilians in the area had been besieged for nearly 150 days without means to survive much longer and 25,000 people had been displaced from their homes since Saturday as fighting and aerial bombings intensified, O'Brien told the council.

"For the sake of humanity, we call on, we plead, with the parties and those with influence, to do everything in their power to protect civilians and enable access to the besieged part of eastern Aleppo before it becomes one giant graveyard."

O'Brien warned that thousands of civilians were expected to flee the city and pleaded with the council to find a political solution to "give some semblance of hope" to Syrians.

Wednesday's deaths were the second such incident in less than 24 hours and took place as civilians were trying to cross into the government-held sector via the Jubb al-Qubba area, the White Helmets rescue organisation said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the attack on Jubb al-Qubba, putting the death toll at 21 or more, including a number of children.

Several countries on the council called for passing a resolution to establish a 10-day ceasefire in Aleppo to allow humanitarian aid in, with many singling out Russia as the sole reason for the council's inability to stop the violence.

Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the UN, said that Western countries were merely using humanitarian issues to advance their political agenda to force a regime change in Syria. "Without taking into account our concerns, no resolution will pass," Churkin said.

Pictures and video published by the White Helmets showed about a dozen bodies, including women and children, strewn across a blood-stained street where the refugees had been gathering. "People trying to flee the Jubb al-Qubba area in eastern Aleppo were targeted by heavy regime shelling," Abdel-Rahman Hassan of the White Helmets, which operates in rebel-held areas of Syria, said.

"The regime repeated the same scenario they did in Bab al-Nayrab the day before," Abdel-Rahman said.

On Tuesday, up to 25 people were killed in the nearby Bab al-Nayrab area while trying to flee deeper into the rebel-held east after the northern third of the enclave fell to government forces. Local residents and activists say the besieged enclave is still being pounded by warplanes and artillery shelling, with wide areas devastated and abandoned by residents who are seeking shelter further away from advancing government forces.

The Observatory said some of the men who sought refuge in regime-controlled areas were arrested and interrogated and at least 300 were still in custody.

The UN's rights office expressed concern on Tuesday that those who manage to flee rebel-held areas might be detained once they reach zones controlled by the government or by Kurds. Amnesty International called on the government to ensure that residents of areas it had captured were protected from arbitrary detention and revenge attacks.

Meanwhile, Syrian government forces pushed into the enclave from its southern margins on Wednesday, with state news agency SANA saying they had gained control of the Sheikh Said district. The government's recent advance is the worst setback for Aleppo's rebels since they seized the eastern half of the city in 2012. It comes after a five-month siege that saw the enclave denied food and medical aid while airstrikes and destroyed schools and medical facilities. 

Government ally Russia on Wednesday said that its forces have not conducted any airstrikes within 10 kilometres of Aleppo for the past 44 days. Hundreds of civilians have been killed in both sides of the divided city by government airstrikes and rebel shelling, including at least 247 in the east and 40 in the west since 15 November, according to the Observatory.    (dpa)

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