The Latest: Syrian envoy at UN hails ‘liberation of Aleppo’
BEIRUT (AP) — The latest on the Syrian conflict (all times local):
Syria’s U.N. ambassador is hailing “the liberation of Aleppo” and rejecting allegations that his country’s military has carried out revenge attacks and executions of civilians.
Bashar Ja’afari told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that Syrian forces have liberated civilians from “terrorists” who controlled eastern Aleppo.
The United States, Britain and France are accusing Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government of committing atrocities against civilians in the rebel-held area.
U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said: “To the Assad regime, Russia and Iran —three member states behind the conquest of and carnage in Aleppo — you bear responsibility for these atrocities.”
Ja’afari says that he “firmly and 100 percent” rejects allegations that Syria has been committing “acts of revenge, summary executions and terror” against civilians.
He says government forces are checking identities of people leaving Aleppo to weed out “terrorists” and foreign fighters and have discovered several dressed as women.
The United Nations is calling for immediate access to eastern Aleppo to confirm Russia’s announcement of the end of military operations and to monitor the evacuation of civilians and the withdrawal of opposition fighters.
The U.N. envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, told reporters Tuesday after an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council that armed groups are still estimated to control up to 5 sq. kilometers (1.9 sq. miles) in eastern Aleppo.
He says the U.N.’s main concern is the up to 50,000 civilians still believed to be in eastern Aleppo.
He says an estimated 1,500 fighters are still there, about 30 percent of them from the al-Qaida linked Fatah al-Sham Front, previously known as the Nusra Front. De Mistura says such figures must be taken “very cautiously” because the U.N. isn’t there.
He says it isn’t clear whether the fighters are leaving with their weapons, which was an issue being discussed.
De Mistura said the U.N. is insisting that civilians who want to go with the fighters to rebel-held Idlib province be allowed to do so. He also expressed concern that Idlib could become the next target of the Syrian military.
Russia’s U.N. ambassador says all military action in eastern Aleppo has ended and the Syrian government has re-established control over the former rebel-held area.
Vitaly Churkin spoke Tuesday near the end of an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, saying “according to the latest information that we received in the last hour, military actions in eastern Aleppo are over.”
He says that as a result, “there is no issue of some cessation of hostilities, or some special humanitarian operation.” He added that “the Syrian government has re-established control over eastern Aleppo.”
The Associated Press was not immediately able to confirm that the fighting had stopped or that all the rebels had surrendered.
Churkin said earlier that “all militants” and members of their families, as well as those wounded in the fighting, “currently are going through agreed corridors in directions that they have chosen themselves voluntarily, including toward Idlib,” a rebel stronghold.
The evacuation of the remaining rebels would mark a major victory for President Bashar Assad and return Syria’s largest city to full government control for the first time since rebels seized the eastern half in 2012.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says opposition forces control just 5 percent of eastern Aleppo and the U.N. has received “credible reports” of civilians killed by intense bombing and summary executions by pro-government forces.
He told an emergency meeting of the Security Council on Tuesday that the U.N. human rights chief has received reports of civilians, including women and children, in four neighborhoods being rounded up and killed.
Ban said it is “wishful thinking” to believe that military advances will solve Syria’s crisis, and called for an immediate end to violence by all sides.
Ban said negotiations are taking place among the parties for an evacuation deal facilitated by Russia and Turkey.
He says “we support these efforts and stand ready to help implement and oversee such an agreement, which we understand may now be imminent.”
The U.N. envoy for Syria says he is discussing a planned cease-fire in eastern Aleppo at the Security Council and that safe withdrawal of people from the besieged area is now “imminent.”
Staffan de Mistura, in a text message to The Associated Press, said he was awaiting “official confirmation” of the cease-fire.
He noted that the United Nations has long been pushing for a safe withdrawal of people from besieged eastern Aleppo, “which is now imminent.”
Syrian rebels said Tuesday they had reached a cease-fire with Russia, a key ally of the Syrian government, to evacuate civilians and fighters from their last enclave in the city.
Syrian activists say government forces have detained 6,000 teenage and adult men trying to escape an assault on rebel-held eastern Aleppo since mid-November.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, citing contacts inside the Syrian security apparatus, said Tuesday that the detainees are being pressed into military service. Syria has compulsory military service laws.
The Syrian army suffers from severe manpower shortages, and has come to rely on militias from Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and Afghanistan.
The Observatory says the detainees are wanted for dodging military service. It added that officials were looking for men with cleanly shaven faces who may have fought on the side of rebels.
Rebel defenses for eastern Aleppo crumbled last month in the face of the government’s massive ground offensive. The insurgents are now confined to a tiny enclave that is expected to be overrun soon.
Syrian rebels say an agreement has been reached with Russia for a cease-fire in Aleppo to evacuate remaining civilians and rebels from besieged districts.
Osama Abu Zayd, a legal adviser for an umbrella group of rebel factions known as the Free Syrian Army, says the cease-fire went into effect Tuesday evening.
He says the first batch will begin evacuating later Tuesday.
Yasser al-Youssef, a spokesman for the Nour el-Din el-Zinki rebel group, confirmed the cease-fire and says the goal is to evacuate civilians and rebels from besieged areas.
There was no immediate comment from the Syrian government or Russia on the reports.
The U.N. Security Council has scheduled an emergency meeting on Aleppo, where Syrian government forces appear on the verge of seizing the city’s last rebel enclave.
France’s U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre told reporters Tuesday that “war crimes and potentially crimes against humanity are committed on a daily basis in Aleppo,” and that the council must try “to stop the bloodshed, to evacuate populations safely, to assist those in need.”
The council scheduled a meeting at noon EST Tuesday at the request of France and the United States. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is scheduled to brief members.
Delattre said that “in these darkest hours for Aleppo it’s never too late to do anything we can to save lives.”
He said “the worst humanitarian tragedy of the 21st century is unfolding before our eyes” and warned that Aleppo may be “the harbinger of more disasters to come.”
Dozens of Jordanians and Syrians have staged a protest against Russia’s involvement in the Syrian government’s push to retake rebel-held areas of the city of Aleppo.
Protesters gathered Tuesday outside the Russian embassy in the Jordanian capital, Amman, chanting against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
They shouted “Freedom forever, against your will, Putin” and raised banners reading “Putin is a killer.”
Jordanian parliament member Dina Tahboub says she joined to protest to show “solidarity with our brothers being killed in cold blood in Syria, specifically in Aleppo.”
Syrian government forces are on the verge of driving rebels from their remaining enclaves in the city, once Syria’s largest. Thousands of civilians are believed to be trapped in Aleppo, amid U.N. reports of extra-judicial executions in the city.
The Russian military says Western criticism of the operation to retake rebel-held neighborhoods of Aleppo is hypocritical.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Tuesday that the militants had used over 100,000 residents of the city’s eastern neighborhoods as human shields. He says civilians fleeing eastern Aleppo have recounted militant repression against anyone who attempted to leave.
Konashenkov said video reports showing the damage to civilian areas from purported Russian strikes had been staged by the militants.
He said Russian sappers inspecting schools and hospitals in eastern Aleppo found that all of them had been turned into militants’ headquarters, ammunition depots and arms factories.
Konashenkov also accused Western powers and international organizations of failing to deliver humanitarian aid to eastern Aleppo.
Russia, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, has charged Western nations with supporting “terrorists,” the Syrian government’s term for all those fighting against it.
Britain’s House of Commons has debated emergency measures to help save thousands of civilians trapped in the Syrian city of Aleppo, with lawmakers backing action.
Conservative lawmaker Andrew Mitchell compared the situation to the mass slaying of civilians in the Bosnian city of Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 people, mainly men and boys, were killed in 1995.
Mitchell says that despite pledges to avoid similar events, “here we are today witnessing, complicit, in what is happening to tens of thousands of Syrians in Aleppo.”
In an emergency debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Mitchell outlined a nightmarish scenario for civilians, and appealed for an organized evacuation under the U.N. flag for the wounded and those “caught up in this terrible catastrophe.”
Amnesty International says a U.N. report that said scores of civilians were “extrajudicially executed” in Aleppo points to apparent war crimes.
The rights group made an “urgent plea” Tuesday for all parties to the conflict to protect the civilian population in the city, where government forces are on the verge of defeating rebels.
The group called the global inaction toward what is happening in Aleppo “shameful.”
Earlier in the day, the U.N. human rights office said it has received reports that pro-government forces killed at least 82 civilians as they entered the last remaining rebel strongholds.
Lynn Maalouf, deputy director for research at Amnesty’s Beirut office, says the reports that civilians, including children, “are being massacred in cold blood in their homes by Syrian government forces are deeply shocking but not unexpected.”
Amnesty International called for all parties to the conflict to grant safe passage to civilians wishing to flee the fighting.
A U.N. humanitarian aid official says the past 24 hours have been the most dramatic so far in “the bloody, bitter, horrific battle of Aleppo,” and warned that those responsible would be held accountable for the bloodshed.
Speaking to reporters in Oslo on Tuesday, Jan Egeland said he hopes the battle ends soon so that humanitarian work can begin.
Several unconfirmed reports of mass killings have emerged from Aleppo over the last 24 hours. The remaining rebel fighters, along with thousands of civilians, are trapped in a rapidly shrinking enclave surrounded by Syrian troops and allied militiamen.
It marks a major defeat for the rebels, who seized eastern Aleppo in 2012.
Egeland said it was important that “those who have orchestrated and organized this attack and this battle understand that they are accountable for what all of the forces do.”
Russia says it is fed up with calls from the United States to halt the fighting in Aleppo, where government forces are on the verge of driving rebels from their last remaining enclave in the northern city.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told journalists Tuesday that “we are tired of hearing this whining from our American colleagues in the current administration that we need to immediately halt military action.”
Lavrov said that while urging Russia to halt military action, the U.S. did nothing to separate moderate rebels from “terrorists” in Aleppo. He also criticized Western governments for what he said were “untrue” accusations that Russia was blocking aid convoys to Syria.
His remarks, made during a visit to Serbia, were carried by the Russian news agency Interfax.
Russia is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad and has been carrying out airstrikes in support of his forces for more than a year.
The U.N. human rights chief says the “crushing of Aleppo” doesn’t amount to the end of Syria’s war and insists it could become more dangerous “if the international community continues to collectively wring its hands.”
Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein on Tuesday decried the bloodshed in Aleppo, including “the wanton slaughter of men, women and children,” and warned of a possible repeat in places like Douma, Raqqa and Idlib that are controlled by opposition fighters or the radical Islamic State group.
In a statement Tuesday, Zeid said international law requires that all people detained must be treated humanely. But he also called for “urgent measures” to help protect those who flee, “given the terrible record of arbitrary detention and torture in Syria even prior to the start of this conflict” nearly six years ago.
He said U.N. officials were documenting rights violations against the Syrian people “with the firm conviction that one day those who are responsible will be held to account.”
The U.N.’s children’s agency is warning that dozens of unaccompanied children are trapped in a building under fire in eastern Aleppo and is calling for their immediate evacuation from the rebel enclave.
UNICEF said in a statement on Tuesday that there could be more than 100 children trapped in the building in eastern Aleppo, according to reports from an unnamed doctor in the city.
UNICEF regional director, Geert Cappelaere, says it’s “time for the world to stand up for the children of Aleppo and bring their living nightmare to an end.”
Pro-government forces have launched a ferocious assault on Aleppo’s few remaining opposition-held neighborhoods, trapping thousands of civilians under unrelenting heavy fire. There are unconfirmed reports that government forces are killing civilians.
Cappelaere says that UNICEF is “deeply concerned” over the unverified reports of the “extrajudicial killings of civilians, including children.”
The U.N. humanitarian aid agency says its partners in Syria have recorded about 37,000 people who have fled eastern Aleppo amid the latest advance of pro-government forces, but that thousands of others have not been counted.
Spokesman Jens Laerke of OCHA on Tuesday decried the “complete meltdown of humanity” in Aleppo, and said that untold thousands are believed to remain behind in shrinking areas held by rebel fighters.
Laerke said in Geneva that his office has that “many civilians have not fled, and may be hiding whether they can.”
He says the U.N. and its partners, including the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, are actively working to get “blanket access” across the city — not just in western Aleppo that has long been controlled by government forces and their allies.
French President Francois Hollande is pressing for Russia to facilitate humanitarian aid to civilians trapped in rebel-held parts of Aleppo.
Hollande said after meeting Germany’s chancellor in Berlin on Tuesday that the Aleppo “humanitarian situation ... is unacceptable.”
He says there are 120,000 people who are being “held hostage, there is no other word for it — who are victims of bombing, who are victims of repression.”
Hollande says everything must be done to allow the population’s evacuation and get aid in through protected corridors, and that Turkey and particularly Russia will be pressed on that.
He says that “without the Russians, there is no Syrian regime that can carry out operations” and that Russians “will be responsible for a situation that they helped create if they do nothing to allow access for humanitarian aid.”
Hollande also says it’s time to send “a humanitarian ultimatum” but didn’t specify a time frame.
The U.N. human rights office says it has received reports of Syria’s pro-government forces killing at least 82 civilians as they entered the last remaining strongholds of the rebels in eastern Aleppo.
Spokesman Rupert Colville of the U.N. human rights office says the reports recount pro-government forces entering homes and killing some civilians “on the spot” in the former rebel enclave.
Colville spoke to reporters in Geneva on Tuesday.
He says 11 women and 13 children were among those reportedly killed in four neighborhoods of the increasingly-shrinking rebel enclave in the city of Aleppo.
Colville says the reports came in late the previous evening and that he doesn’t know exactly when the killings took place.
The International Committee of the Red Cross is urging those fighting in Syria’s Aleppo to do all they can to protect and spare civilian lives.
The ICRC says in a statement on Tuesday that thousands of people with no part in the violence “have literally nowhere safe to run.”
The dramatic appeal came after Syrian military announced the previous day it gained control of 99 percent of the former opposition enclave in eastern Aleppo, signaling an impending end to the rebels’ four-year hold over parts of the city.
ICRC says a deepening humanitarian catastrophe and further loss of life can be averted only if the basic rules of warfare — and of humanity — are applied.
Retaking Aleppo would be President Bashar Assad’s biggest victory yet in the civil war.