Siege, bombardment of Aleppo in Syria crimes of historic proportions: Top UN human rights official

Smoke rises from reported opposition fire from buildings in an eastern government-held neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Oct 20, 2016.
Smoke rises from reported opposition fire from buildings in an eastern government-held neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Oct 20, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

GENEVA (REUTERS) - The top United Nations human rights official said on Friday (Oct 21) that the siege and bombing of eastern Aleppo in Syria constituted "crimes of historic proportions" that have caused heavy civilian casualties amounting to war crimes.

Mr Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein did not specifically name Russia, whose war planes have carried out weeks of air strikes on the rebel-held part of Aleppo along with the Syrian air force, but his reference was clear.

"Armed opposition groups continue to fire mortars and other projectiles into civilian neighbourhoods of western Aleppo, but indiscriminate air strikes across the eastern part of the city by government forces and their allies are responsible for the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties," Mr Zeid said in a speech to a special session of the UN Human Rights Council.

He called for major powers to put aside their differences and refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC). "The violations and abuses suffered by people across the country, including the siege and bombardment of eastern Aleppo, are simply not tragedies; they also constitute crimes of historic proportions," Mr Zeid told the Geneva session by video link.

Russia has denied any deliberate targeting of civilians and says it is combating terrorists.

The ambassadors of Russia and Syria said that their forces were observing a 11-hour truce in Aleppo to allow evacuation of the wounded and for civilians to leave.

Britain, which requested the one-day session along with allies, including the United States, in order to set up a special inquiry on Aleppo, said Russian air strikes in Aleppo were worsening the situation.

"This is shameful and it is not the action or leadership that we expect from a P5 nation," Britain's junior Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood said, referring to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Mr Ted Allegra, deputy US ambassador, said that the Russian and Syrian assault had killed 400 people, including 100 children.

"These shocking acts in Aleppo beg for an appropriate investigation and those who commit them must be held accountable," he said.

Ukraine's ambassador Yurii Klymenko, referring to the Chechen capital battered by Russia, said: "We are witnessing turning Aleppo into another Grozny."

Russian Ambassador Alexey Borodavkin accused Britain and its allies of "trying to save terrorists from being the target of strikes, allowing them to regroup and continue their barbaric acts".

An 11-hour unilateral ceasefire in Aleppo was "allowing civilians and those fighters who lay down their weapons to leave" the city, Moscow's envoy said.

Mr Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the UN commission of inquiry on Syria, said that the panel would continue to document war crimes in Aleppo and urged the government of President Bashar al-Assad to provide information on violations.

"Hospitals, markets, bakeries and water stations have all been targeted by airplanes flying overhead; many have been destroyed, amplifying the effect of the siege," Mr Pinheiro said.

Syria's ambassador Hussam Aala accused Western and Gulf countries of launching a "propaganda campaign" against his country.

"The hysterical hype by these countries about the eastern part of Aleppo, its timing, and the statements of the Saudi (Foreign Minister) Adel al-Jubeir about sending more lethal weapons to the terrorists there, make it clear that the goal is to protect the terrorists encircled in that part of the city."