The UN aid chief has raised the alarm for nearly one million people living under siege in war-torn Syria. The number has more than doubled in the past six months.
The UN under-secretary general for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O'Brien told the UN Security Council that 974,080 people were currently living under siege in Syria. That number stood at just under 487,000 six months ago.
Since July, 275,000 more people have reportedly come under siege in eastern Aleppo alone, where government forces have been making advances against rebels. In eastern Aleppo, O'Brien said, humanitarian conditions had worsened "from terrible to terrifying and now barely survivable." New areas that have reportedly come under siege in the past weeks and months include Joubar near Damascus, al-Hajar al-Aswad, Khan al-Shih, and multiple locales in the enclave of eastern Ghutah east of Damascus.
"Civilians are being isolated, starved, bombed and denied medical attention and humanitarian assistance in order to force them to submit or flee. It is a deliberate tactic of cruelty to compound a people's suffering for political, military and in some cases economic gain," O'Brien said, adding that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad aim was to destroy and defeat a civilian population that cannot defend itself.
Situation particularly hopeless in Aleppo
O'Brien's assessment built on growing international concern over the fate of Aleppo in particular, where 250,000 people continue to be trapped in the east of the city under a government siege, as Assad's military appears to advance. The prospect of Aleppo's recapture by government forces would be the biggest victory for the regime in the country's brutal five-year conflict.
A European diplomat told the Agence France Presse news agency (AFP) that the Syrian government's capture of east Aleppo appeared to be only a matter of time:
"Now, it's just a question of how long they (rebel forces) can hold on," the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There is nothing to eat, no more hospitals and the bombardment is non-stop. They are under very strong pressure."
Rebel forces have steadily been losing ground since Syrian ally Russia decided to intervene in the conflict last year in order to boost Assad's government. Aleppo has been ravaged by the conflict that began with anti-government protests in March 2011.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of informants on the ground in Syria, said that more than 100 civilians had been killed in east Aleppo in the past week alone, including at least 15 who died in regime air strikes, barrel bomb attacks and artillery fire. Meanwhile rebels were also reported to have fired rockets into government-held west Aleppo, killing 10 people including eight children on the weekend.
No progress in sight
UN envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura meanwhile finished a visit to Damascus after the Syrian government rebuffed his plan for a truce in Aleppo that included opposition administration of eastern areas.
UN envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura failed to reach a truce in Aleppo during talks with the regime in Damascus
"We told him that we reject that completely," Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said about the negotiations.
De Mistura warned that time was "running out" for east Aleppo, pointing out that there was concern about "an acceleration of military activities" in the city.
US President Barack Obama also said he was "not optimistic about the short-term prospects in Syria."
The long road to justice
Meanwhile the US on Monday named 13 Syrian generals and officers accused of leading attacks on civilian targets, with its UN ambassador Samantha Power warning they would come to face justice one day.
"The United States will not let those who have commanded units involved in these actions hide anonymously behind the facade of the Assad regime," Power told the Security Council, stressing that the United States also knows places where torture allegedly takes place in Syria.
"I know right now, today, with wind at their backs, these individuals feel impunity," Power said, while reminding them that others who felt the same way in the past included Bosnian Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic and Liberian president Charles Taylor, who were eventually arrested and brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Power also said the United States was aware that opposition groups and so-called "Islamic State" (IS) extremists had also committed abuses, but didn't identify any individuals.
ss/bw (AFP, AP, dpa)