The fall of Aleppo takes ‘immeasurably terrifying toll,’ U.N. rights chief says

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, two Syrian soldiers pass by a tank where government forces have captured wide areas in eastern Aleppo, Syria. (SANA via AP)

The end is near in the battle for Aleppo. Syrian rebel leaders and Russian officials announced today that fighting would end tonight. Buses are expected to help civilians and rebels leave the eastern part of the city starting tomorrow morning.

It is a possible reprieve to what one U.N. spokesperson described this morning as “a complete meltdown of humanity.” Humanitarian organizations decried the brutal crackdown by the Syrian regime on Aleppo. The U.N. reported that pro-government forces were entering homes and killing those inside – including women and children.

Pro-government forces killed at least 82 civilians on Monday, according to the office of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. He warned that the brutal assault on Aleppo could be repeated in other rebel-held cities if the international community does not step in. Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by the Russian government, must uphold human rights laws and protect civilians, he said.

“The crushing of Aleppo, the immeasurably terrifying toll on its people, the bloodshed, the wanton slaughter of men, women and children, the destruction – and we are nowhere near the end of this cruel conflict. What can happen next, if the international community continues to collectively wring its hands, can be much more dangerous,” said Zeid.

OHCHR spokesman Rupert Colville suggested that “massive crimes may be under way,” in a briefing this morning. Hundreds of men reportedly went missing while attempting to cross into government-held parts of the city, OHCHR reported last week.

OHCHR is urging the Syrian government to allow independent international groups access to the city to support civilians and investigate potential crimes. The hope is that external accountability could deter the torture and summary executions, which have been documented throughout the civil war.

Many people were able to flee before the assault. Russian officials said more than 13,000 civilians fled in the past 24 hours alone. But tens of thousands of people remain trapped in their homes. A doctor told UNICEF U.K. that as many as 100 unaccompanied children are trapped in a building that is under heavy attack.

“As violence continues to escalate in Aleppo today, thousands of children are suffering in silence, and coming under brutal attack on our watch,” according to a UNICEF U.K. statement issued today. “It is time for the world to stand up for the children of Aleppo and bring their living nightmare to an end.”

Rebels held Aleppo for four years, but it took only about a month for Syrian forces, with air support from Russia, to regain the stronghold.

Aid groups are sounding the alarm, with multiple groups issuing statements that echo the OHCHR’s concerns.

“We urge the parties to consider the fate of civilians trapped by the ongoing fighting and do their utmost to spare and protect them. This may be the last chance to save lives,” according to an International Committee of the Red Cross statement issued today.

Attempts over the last week to broker a cease-fire failed. There was optimism heading into the weekend that a deal was imminent. The plan would have allowed more people to flee and for humanitarian aid to reach those who remained, but Russia blocked the deal.

“Rather than accepting the U.S. proposal for an immediate cessation, the Russians informed us that a cessation could not start for several days, meaning that the assault by the regime and its supporters on Aleppo would continue until any agreement would go into effect,” U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a press briefing.

Some 415 civilians, including 47 children, have died in the assault on Aleppo, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“The world is watching Aleppo – and we are documenting the violations being committed against its people, with the firm conviction that one day those who are responsible will be held to account,” said Zeid. “We must ensure that this happens. The hellish suffering to which the people of Syria are being subjected must stop.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.