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UN says 16,000 flee east Aleppo, calls situation ‘chilling’

Syrian government soldiers walk near an abandoned weapon that belonged to rebels, after they took control of al-Sakhour neighbourhood in Aleppo, Syria, November 28, 2016. — SANA/Reuters pic
Syrian government soldiers walk near an abandoned weapon that belonged to rebels, after they took control of al-Sakhour neighbourhood in Aleppo, Syria, November 28, 2016. — SANA/Reuters pic

GENEVA, Nov 29 — Up to 16,000 civilians have fled strife-torn parts of eastern Aleppo as the rebels lost all of the northern neighbourhoods of their stronghold, the UN said Tuesday, describing the situation as “chilling”.

“The intensity of attacks on eastern Aleppo neighbourhoods over the past few days has forced thousands of civilians to flee to other parts of the city,” UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien said in a statement.

He pointed to reports from the UN’s humanitarian partners on the ground indicating that “up to 16,000 people have been displaced, many into uncertain and precarious situations”.

“It is likely that thousands more will have no choice but to flee should fighting continue to spread and intensify over the coming days,” he warned.

His comments came as the Syrian army advanced deep inside the longtime rebel stronghold of east Aleppo, taking several neighbourhoods from the opposition in an onslaught to recapture the entire city.

Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN humanitarian agency, told reporters in Geneva Tuesday that a full 10,000 of those fleeing the intense battles in eastern Aleppo have gone to districts held by the government in the west of the city.

As many as 6,000 others had headed to the Kurdish-held Sheikh Maqsud neighbourhood, he said.

O’Brien voiced concern over the “deeply alarming and chilling situation unfolding” across all of Aleppo.

“The parties to the conflict in Syria have shown time and again that they are willing to take any action to secure military advantage even if it means killing, maiming or starving civilians into submission in the process,” he said.

‘Descent into hell’

The situation in eastern Aleppo is dire, with intensified ground fighting and indiscriminate aerial bombardment reportedly killing and injuring many civilians, he said.

“There are no functioning hospitals left, and official food stocks are practically finished.”

At the same time, indiscriminate shelling on government-held western Aleppo has killed and injured civilians and has displaced more than 20,000 people in recent weeks, O’Brien said.

The World Food Programme’s last warehoused stocks in eastern Aleppo, where some 250,000 civilians have been besieged for months, were distributed on November 13, spokeswoman Bettina Luescher told reporters.

The lack of food is “really dire”, she said, warning that the people stuck in the east were in a “slow-motion descent into hell”.

The UN human rights office meanwhile voiced alarm at the dangers facing those attempting to flee the fighting.

“Adding to the dangers associated with attempting to flee across an active front-line, we have received reports that opposition groups are preventing civilians from leaving areas under their control,” spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani told reporters.

She also voiced concern that civilians believed to have links to armed opposition groups could be detained once they reach government or Kurdish-controlled areas.

She warned that the use of the “terrorist” label “has in the past been used to punish peaceful activists and family members”.

O’Brien said the UN and its partners were trying their best to help those displaced by the fighting across the city, and stood ready to bring aid into eastern Aleppo and to carry out medical evacuations if they managed to get access.

More than 300,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since Syria’s conflict began with anti-government protests in March 2011. — AFP

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