Syria

“Slaughterhouse”

Fighting returned to Aleppo amid renewed calls for a war crimes investigation

Aleppo once again under assault after unilateral cease-fire ends

Intense clashes and airstrikes returned to the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo on Saturday night, ending a three-day unilateral “humanitarian pause” announced by Russia earlier in the week.

The cease-fire, which was initially slated to last a mere eight hours on Thursday, was extended into the weekend after humanitarian leaders, including from the United Nations and Médecins Sans Frontières, criticized Russia for its failure to ensure there was enough time and safety precautions in place to deliver aid and conduct medical evacuations.

Specifically, the U.Nworried that because the cease-fire had been rejected by rebel groups, necessary security measures for emergency aid convoys and personnel had not been met.

Such fears proved too great, and at a briefing in Geneva on Friday, deputy U.N. spokesman Jens Laerke announced that the intergovernmental organization had cancelled its planned medical evacuations from eastern Aleppo.

“We cannot begin safe, secure, and voluntary evacuation of the sick and critically wounded and families,” said Laerke. He added that the U.N. was still hoping to conduct badly needed medical evacuations and that officials were monitoring the cease-fire “on a day-by-day, hour-by-hour basis.”

But by Saturday evening, fighting and airstrikes had resumed, and little to no humanitarian aid had made its way into the eastern part of the city, where food and medical supplies are running low after Syrian government forces cut off aid passageways during the siege.

The return to shelling and airstrikes follows damning comments by the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, in a video presented before a U.N. Human Rights Council session Friday. The high commissioner condemned the siege, which has destroyed much of the city since it began in late June and intensified in September following a failed U.S.-Russia–brokered cease-fire.

Al-Hussein was unsparing in his criticism — he called the relentless bombing of eastern Aleppo “crimes of historic proportions” —and cited all groups as being party to the ongoing humanitarian crisis that has transformed Aleppo into a “slaughterhouse.” But the High Commissioner reserved his harshest condemnation for the “indiscriminate airstrikes across the eastern part of the city by government forces,” which he said were “responsible for the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties.”

The High Commissioner urged U.N. officials and major member states to refer the crimes committed against civilians in Aleppo to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

Mr. al-Hussein’s statement follows similar concerns voiced by Human Rights Watch earlier this month. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has also ramped up his criticisms of the bombing campaign in eastern Aleppo. Earlier this month, he accused Assad’s government and its Russian allies of deliberately attacking hospitals as part of a “targeted strategy to terrorize civilians,” and said they were  “acts that beg for an appropriate investigation of war crimes.”

Last week during a taped interview with Swiss channel SFR1, journalist Sandro Brotz confronted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with a photograph of Omran Daqneesh, the 5-year-old boy whose widely shared image — bloodied, in the back of an ambulance — has made him the face of civilian suffering in Aleppo. Assad insisted that the image was fake, despite multiple eyewitness accounts to the contrary. 

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