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Middle East

Besieged city of Aleppo facing humanitarian crisis

Text by FRANCE 24 (with wires)

Latest update : 2012-08-01

Residents of the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo said they were running short of food, water and other vital supplies on Wednesday as the Syrian military's battle to retake rebel positions entered its 11th day.

Syrians in the war-torn city of Aleppo, which has become the focal point of the 17-month-long conflict between rebels and government forces, were running out of food and vital supplies on Wednesday as the international community struggled to craft a response to the deepening crisis.

Trapped residents of Syria’s most populous city and people fleeing the fighting told news agencies that bread and water, as well as cooking gas, were already in short supply. Power outages were also becoming more frequent as Syrian military aircraft pounded rebel-held neighbourhoods of the city.

War reaches capital’s Christian quarters

Fighting between soldiers and rebels broke out on Wednesday for the first time near two Christian districts of Damascus.

The Bab Tuma and Bab Sharqi quarters, previously popular with tourists, have so far been spared from clashes between rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Fighting was also reported near the iconic Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, a Unesco World Heritage Site, on Wednesday.

“There is not enough food and people are trying to leave. We really need support from the outside. There is random shelling against civilians,” Mohammed Nabehan, who had left the city, told the Associated Press. “The city has pretty much run out of cooking gas, so people are cooking on open flames or with electricity.”

“We have hardly any power or water, our wives and kids have left us here to watch the house and have gone somewhere safer,” Jumaa, a 45-year-old construction worker, told the Reuters news agency.

Fighting has intensified in recent days, with the opposition hoping Aleppo will be the tipping point in the battle to topple President Bashar al-Assad, and the regime pulling out massive firepower to freeze the rebels’ advance.

In his first communication in two weeks, President Assad heralded the role of the army on the occasion of its 67th anniversary.

"The army is engaged in a crucial and heroic battle... on which the destiny of the nation and its people rests", he wrote, according to the SANA, the official media agency. "The enemy is among us today, using agents to destabilise the country... and continues to exhaust our economic and scientific resources." 

Confusion on the ground

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AP that rebels seized the Salihin and Bab al-Neyrab police stations on Tuesday in battles that lasted several hours. About 40 police officers and soldiers were killed in those fights, the watchdog added.

Reuters reported that neither the Syrian army nor rebel fighters were in full control of the heavily disputed southwest Salaheddine quarter, which the government said it had reclaimed from rebels on Sunday.

On Monday, rebels seized the strategic Anadan checkpoint northwest of Aleppo after a 10-hour battle, securing them free movement between the northern city and Turkey.

Nevertheless, the regime appeared to have regained the momentum in the days since a July 18 bombing killed four top Assad lieutenants. Many observers expect government forces to drown out the rebel run on Aleppo as they did in Damascus last week.

The siege of the city entered its eleventh day on Wednesday as the United Nations and other international humanitarian aid agencies warned of a deepening refugee crisis. As many as 200,000 reportedly fled from Aleppo last weekend.

In a report published on Wednesday, Amnesty International said government troops and militias loyal to Assad had routinely used live fire against peaceful demonstrations in the city before the worst of the fighting started nearly two weeks ago.

Government forces targeted civilians, “killing and injuring protesters and bystanders, including children, and hunted down the wounded, the medics who treated them, and opposition activists,” the UK-based group reported.

The report also mentioned rising reports of abuses by the armed opposition, urging caution to governments who are considering further arming the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Fears of regional conflict

As reports of the bloodshed in Aleppo trickled out of the city under siege, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby accused the regime of committing atrocities. “The massacres that are happening in Aleppo and other places in Syria amount to war crimes that are punishable under international law,” Elaraby said in Cairo.

His comments were echoed by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. “God willing, the brotherly Syrian people and the Middle East will soon be freed from this dictator with blood on his hands, and his regime, which was built on blood,” Erdogan, a former ally of Assad, said late on Tuesday in a televised address.

But despite the harsh words against President Erdogan, Western powers and regional players still appeared unwilling to intervene directly. French, British and US officials have pushed for formal condemnation and sanctions against Assad in the UN Security Council, but have met with resistance from Security Council members Russia and China.

Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said the United States was not contemplating unilateral action in Syria, citing fears that military intervention could exacerbate the war.

Syria’s close ties to Iran and the Islamic militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon mean that the conflict has the potential to draw in the country’s neighbours.

In its August 1 report, Amnesty International again called on the Security Council to ensure a human rights monitoring mission in Syria.

France, who on Wednesday took over the rotating presidency of the Security Council for one month, said it would immediately call for a new emergency meeting on the Syrian crisis, despite doubts there was any hope of a diplomatic breakthrough.

Enter Council of Syrian Revolutionary Trustees

As the war raged on and the international community appeared frozen, Syria’s political opposition continued to splinter. On Tuesday, Haitham al-Maleh, an 81-year-old lawyer and veteran Syrian opposition member, added his name to a growing list of groups and defectors who say they are ready to lead a transitional government.

Maleh said he was forming his own group, the Council of Syrian Revolutionary Trustees - a challenge to the Syrian National Council, a long-established group they said had failed.

But the opposition’s fragmentation has proved to be one of its most serious pitfalls, and there is little chance that the new, small council will help rally and unify the uprising.

Speaking at a press conference in Cairo on Wednesday, Maleh called on the international community to provide air cover to rebels, but said he did not want an international military intervention on the ground.

“The Syrian army is bombing cities and civilians in their homes. We are demanding the protection of Syrian civilians,” he said.


Date created : 2012-08-01


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