Al Jazeera America – 2016-02-11 00:16:17
Russian-backed Aleppo Offensive ‘Kills Hundreds’
Al Jazeera Staff
(February 10, 2016) — At least 500 people, including 89 civilians, have been killed since the Russian-backed offensive on Aleppo province began earlier this month, a monitoring group has said.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Wednesday that at least 500 people have been killed since the Syrian government, backed by Russian air strikes, launched a major offensive from the north of Aleppo on February 1.
The Observatory said that among those killed are “89 civilians, including 23 children, 143 pro-government fighters, 274 rebels and foreign fighters”. Tens of thousands of Syrians have fled their homes in Aleppo’s suburbs and are waiting on the Turkish border.
The Syrian government holds the west of Aleppo city while the rebels hold the east, but the situation is largely reversed in the countryside. The UN warned on Tuesday that up to 300,000 people living in the city of Aleppo could be cut off from humanitarian aid unless access could be negotiated.
“If government advances around the city continue”, it said, “local councils in the city estimate that some 100,000 to 150,000 civilians may flee,” the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said on Wednesday that at least 23,000 Syrians have arrived in camps around the town of Azaz, east of Aleppo. At one border crossing with Turkey known as Bab al-Salameh, MSF said there are around 79,000 Syrians staying in camps.
Russian Air Strikes
Russia launched its military operation in Syria in September 2015, and it says the campaign is against armed groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Nusra Front. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu accused Russia on Wednesday of carrying out a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing around the city of Aleppo.
On Wednesday, Russia denied such accusations and said its air strikes have not targeted civilians in Syria. Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry’s spokeswoman, said that “Moscow has still not received convincing evidence of civilian deaths as a result of Russian air strikes in Syria.” Zakharova also said that Russia’s operation in Syria “is directed exclusively at fighting terrorist threats”.
Syrian peace talks were suspended in Geneva this month until February 25, after UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said more work was needed to make progress. The UN Security Council is expected to discuss the humanitarian situation in Syria in a closed door meeting later on Wednesday.
The Syrian opposition has said that it will not attend the scheduled talks unless the government ends it air strikes and lifts the sieges on cities and towns. The peace talks are meant to develop a “road map” to end the conflict of almost five years that has resulted in more than 250,000 Syrians being killed.
The conflict has also displaced millions more and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing as refugees to Europe.
UN: Aleppo Siege Could
Cut Off Food Supplies to 300,000
Al Jazeera America
(February 9, 2016) — Hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians in opposition-held areas in Aleppo city are under threat of being cut off from basic food supplies amid expectations of a looming siege by government forces, the United Nations has warned.
The UN said on Tuesday that it is worried government advances could block the last link for civilians in rebel-held parts of Aleppo with the main Turkish border crossing, which has long served as the lifeline for those areas in Syria.
“It would leave up to 300,000 people, still residing in the city, cut off from humanitarian aid unless . . . access could be negotiated,” the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said. “If government advances around the city continue”, it said, “local councils in the city estimate that some 100,000 to 150,000 civilians may flee,” it said.
Aleppo was once Syria’s biggest city and home to two million people.
Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, have launched a major offensive over the past week in the countryside around Aleppo, which has been divided between government and rebel control for years.
Locals have told Al Jazeera about their fears of a possible siege and the harsh effects of the conflict on food and fuel prices in the city.
A woman, who asked to be called Om Steif, said: “The people here in Aleppo are scared of the coming siege. What will happen to the cost of living to citizens like me? How can they afford [to buy] heating fuel when the prices keep doubling and quadrupling every day. How will we face this?”
Zaid Muhammad, a volunteer for Kesh Malek — a Syrian activist group in opposition-held districts of Aleppo, told Al Jazeera how Russian air strikes backing government forces have been “terrorising” civilians daily. “For seven or eight hours a day they (warplanes) are invading the skies and terrorising the people psychologically,” he said
Meanhwhile, the UN’s refugee agency has called on Turkey to open the border to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing the government offensive in Aleppo province, who are stranded near the Bab al-Salameh crossing.
In an interview with Al Jazeera on Tuesday, UNHCR spokesman William Spindler praised Ankara for allowing in a number of wounded refugees and for providing humanitarian assistance to those on the Syrian side of the crossing.
But he said the Turkish government needs to “extend the opening of the border to others in need of protection and fleeing danger”, in accordance with its obligations under international law.
Spindler said that his agency acknowledges the fact that Turkey is already hosting 2.5 million refugees, which has inflicted a “huge strain” on the country’s economy, and called on the international community to assist Ankara in handling the burgeoning crisis. “This is clearly an international crisis and we all have an obligation to assist,” he said.
Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from the bordering Turkish city of Gaziantep, described a “worsening humanitarian tragedy on the ground” in Aleppo governorate, as refugee camps overflow and the Syrian government onslaught of the city intensifies. “There are thousands of others who are stuck in the town of Azaz, which is just a few kilometres from the Bab al-Salameh crossing,” she said.
“Already hundreds of families are moving from Azaz, because according to Doctors Without Borders there is no more space, the camps can no longer absorb more people and people are sleeping out in the open. These people are getting on buses and heading to the western side of Aleppo after receiving safe passage from the YPG (Kurdish People’s Protection Units).
Report: Russia in ‘Daily Cluster Bomb Attacks’ in Syria
Ryan Rifai / Al Jazeera America
(February 9, 2016) — Over the past two weeks, Syrian government and Russian military forces have carried out daily air strikes using internationally banned cluster bombs in opposition-held areas across Syria, killing dozens of civilians, according to Human Rights Watch.
In a report released on Monday, the monitoring group said that the joint military operations launched at least 14 attacks with the weapons across five governorates since January 26, killing at least 37 civilians, including nine children.
Scores of others were also injured, the report said, adding that the total number of cluster attacks during the period was likely to be higher. “Local activists have reported at least eight additional attacks,” it said, but noted they could not be verified.
An international convention banning the use of cluster munitions because of their indiscriminate impact came into force in 2010. The weapons pose a threat to civilians owing to the widespread destruction they cause. Unexploded bomblets are often left behind following attacks.
The intensified use of the explosives came amid the Syrian government’s offensive to seize territory from opposition fighters in the provinces of Aleppo, Idlib, Damascus, Homs and Hama.
Some of the cluster munition attacks reportedly occurred in the northern governorate of Aleppo, where an ongoing offensive has caused tens of thousands of people to flee to the Turkish border.
Citing examples, HRW said it received reports that in the town of Anadan, cluster munitions and other weapons were used in an air attack that also struck a field hospital on January 27, killing a nurse.
On the same day in the central governorate of Homs, an aircraft dropped cluster munitions on Kafr Laha, a town in opposition-controlled territory under siege by Syrian government forces, killing at least six people and wounding 59 others, including 27 children, the report cited an anonymous local journalist as saying. Other witnesses confirmed the death toll, HRW said.
“I saw people who had their legs cut off,” a journalist with the opposition-affiliated Homs Media Center told HRW. “One person lost his eye. There were several people who were hanging between life and death. The injured were mostly women and children. All of them were injured from fragments from the submunitions, in the eyes, in the head, in the back. It was very hard to see.”
On its Facebook page, Homs Media Center reported that on Sunday, mostly women and children were injured after air strikes using cluster munitions destroyed civilian homes in opposition-controlled areas in the province.
At a December news conference, Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian military, denied allegations that the air force had stockpiled cluster munitions in Syria. He said the “Russian aviation does not use them” and “there are no such weapons at the Russian air base in Syria”.
However, the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), a Russian activist group that monitors the Russian military’s activities abroad, told Al Jazeera it has substantial evidence that the country uses various types of the munitions in Syria.
“We can confirm Russia indeed uses cluster bombs, specifically RBK-500 Shoab-05, RBK-500 AO-2,5RTM and RBK-500 SPBE,” Kirill Mikhailov, a CIT spokesman, said. “They all have been photographed and filmed both at the Hmeymim airbase in Latakia. The munitions were shown to be either attached to Russian jets, placed on the ground, and in some cases found in residential areas.”
Elliot Higgins, a British journalist who has focused on the Syrian conflict, has also reported evidence of Russia’s possession of cluster munitions in the country.
“The Russian Defence Ministry has repeatedly denied this, even claiming there’s no such munitions at their Syrian airbase,” he told Al Jazeera. “But images from the airbase published by the Russian media outlets [including] Sputnik and RT, and even the Russian defence ministry, clearly shows them at the base.
“These denials that fly in the face of facts are fairly typical of the Russian Defence Ministry. The big difference now is there’s a lot more publicly avaliable information that can be used to fact-check their denials and claims, which, as it turns out, is a very good thing for anyone who actually wants to know what Russia is really doing.”
Monitoring groups, including the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, say Russian air strikes have killed at least 1,000 civilians, including more than 300 children, since they began in September last year.
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