Syrian air strikes ‘hit displaced people’s camp’ near Aleppo
BEIRUT // Dozens of air strikes hit rebel-held areas of Aleppo and nearby towns on Thursday, amid mounting allegations of war crimes in the Syrian government’s bid to repel a rebel offensive to break the siege on the east of the city.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based opposition monitor, said there were at least 40 air strikes on opposition areas, including on a camp for displaced people in Atareb, south-west of Aleppo. At least two people were killed in that attack, according to the Aleppo Media Centre, another activist group, while the Syrian Civil Defence said two of its volunteers were wounded, one of them seriously, in a follow-up attack on the camp.
Despite the continued violence, the United Nations expressed hope on Thursday that developments in the next few days could result in resumed peace talks by the end of the month.
The UN’s deputy envoy for Syria, Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy, did not elaborate on what kind of breakthrough it was anticipating at a time when rebel and government forces seem dedicated to the battle in Aleppo.
“Bear with us. I think in the next few days there might be some movement” toward “credible talks”, he said in Geneva, where the International Syria Support Group held a meeting to discuss the situation in Aleppo.
There was optimism over peace talks between the Syrian opposition and government earlier this year and a cessation of hostilities agreement put in place in late February. But the talks collapsed in April over rising levels of violence, the government’s refusal to discuss the political future of president Bashar Al Assad and concern that regime forces were manoeuvring to besiege rebel-held eastern Aleppo.
The government, backed by Russian air strikes, brought eastern Aleppo under siege on July 17. An estimated 300,000 civilians, a third of them children, are trapped there along with rebel fighters. As rebels launched a major offensive to break the siege on Sunday, passions on both sides of the war have only been inflamed as levels of violence rise.
The leading role of Jabhat Fatah Al Sham – formerly named Jabhat Al Nusra before officially breaking away from Al Qaeda last week – in the Aleppo offensive presents further challenges to any kind of halt in fighting or resumption of negotiations the UN might be hoping for. While the group is looking to get closer to other rebel factions, they are still considered a terrorist group by Syria and the international community and have so far been explicitly excluded from any peace talks or future peace deals in Syria.
The UN’s optimism over a resumption of peace talks come as there are increasing allegations of war crimes on the battlefield in Aleppo.
On Wednesday, the US-based Physicians for Human Rights group said it had verified air strikes against six Aleppo hospitals between July 23 and July 31, making it the worst week for attacks on hospitals in the country’s five-year-long civil war.
“Destroying hospitals is tantamount to signing thousands of death warrants for people now stranded in eastern Aleppo,” said Widney Brown, the group’s director of programmes. “The bombings, the lack of humanitarian aid, and the failure of the United Nations to deliver any kind of assistance means the death toll may soon be catastrophic.”
Jan Egeland, an adviser to the UN’s special envoy to Syria, said on Thursday that there were 44 attacks on hospitals, clinics and health posts around Syria in July alone.
In recent days, both rebel and government forces have been accused of using chemical weapons.
Russia’s defence ministry said on Wednesday that “poisonous agents” were launched at a residential area of Aleppo, killing seven and injuring 20. It said the area the chemical weapons were launched from was controlled by Harakat Nour El Din Zenki, a rebel group which has been under scrutiny after footage emerged last month showing some of its men beheading a 12-year-old boy accused of being a pro-regime fighter.
Rebels accused the government of carrying out a chemical attack on the town of Saraqeb, south-west of Aleppo, on Tuesday.
Jabhat Fatah Al Sham said it believed the attack was carried out by government forces in retaliation for the downing of a Russian helicopter on Monday, an attack that killed five.
On Wednesday, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said the reports were “of great concern”.
Meanwhile, the delivery of aid in Syria continues to be obstructed by the heightened levels of violence.
Mr Egeland said that only 40 per cent of planned humanitarian aid was delivered in June and July.
There is “fighting in too many places, and that affects the besieged towns more than anything else”, he said.
Elsewhere, UN agencies said they had completed the first delivery since June of desperately needed food and hygiene supplies to more than 75,000 Syrians trapped on the border with Jordan.
* With additional reporting from Associated Press and Agence France-Presse