‘500 dead’ in Syria regime’s Aleppo assault
BEIRUT, Lebanon—A Russian-backed regime onslaught in northern Syria was reported Wednesday to have killed more than 500 people this month, as Turkey faced new pressure to open its border to people fleeing the violence.
World powers urged Russia to end its air strikes which a senior US official said were “directly enabling” the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, and the UN Security Council met to discuss the conflict.
The meeting behind closed doors came ahead of crucial international talks Thursday in Munich to push for Syrian peace negotiations.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 506 people had died since the regime launched a major offensive against rebels in Aleppo province on February 1.
They include 23 children who were killed in Russian air strikes, according to the Britain-based monitor, which relies on a network of sources on the ground.
Tens of thousands of Syrians were still stranded Wednesday at the Oncupinar border crossing, which remained closed.
Turkey is already hosting 2.7 million Syrian refugees and has refused to let a new wave into the country, instead providing humanitarian assistance over the border in Syria.
Many are sleeping in tents or the open, with emergency camps already full.
Medical aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said Wednesday the healthcare system around the war-torn town of Azaz in Aleppo province was “close to collapse” due to the fighting.
Since Saturday, an MSF hospital near Azaz has seen an increase of about 50 percent in its outpatient department. Many are suffering respiratory tract infections.
“Azaz district has seen some of the heaviest tolls of this brutal war, and yet again we are seeing healthcare under siege,” said Muskilda Zancada, the head of MSF’s Syria mission.
‘Dying under bombs’
Those who have fled the offensive tell of scenes of terror and suffering.
“Children are dying under bombs and from hunger and cold. They are living on the roads. They don’t have any place to stay,” said Abdul Karim Bahloul, who crossed into Turkey on Wednesday morning.
Human rights groups weighed in, urging Turkey to accept those stranded on its border.
“Forcing people to remain in a war zone, where they risk death and injury, is no solution to the challenge of protecting Syrians fleeing their country,” said Human Rights Watch.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) it was increasing the amount of aid for people caught up in the violence.
“It is estimated that around 50,000 people have been displaced, mainly in northern areas of Aleppo province, due to the recent upsurge in fighting,” it said.
“The fighting is putting enormous pressure on civilians,” said from Aleppo Marianne Gasser, the ICRC head in Syria.
“The temperatures are extremely low and, without an adequate supply of food, water and shelter, displaced people are trying to survive in very precarious conditions.”
Fighting on Wednesday raged around Tamura, north of Aleppo city, with intense Russian air raids on several nearby villages, the Observatory said.
Pro-regime forces have made a series of gains this month in Aleppo province, severing rebel supply lines.
The UN has warned 300,000 people in eastern Aleppo city could be cut off from humanitarian aid if government forces encircle the area, a tactic used by the regime to devastating effect against other rebel bastions.
More than 260,000 people have been killed and half the population displaced since Syria’s conflict began in 2011 with anti-regime protests.
‘Pool of blood’
Last week, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura suspended Syria peace talks until February 25 amid opposition protests about the bombing, and the Munich meeting aims to pressure the sides to return to the table.
A key opposition figure insisted the lifting of regime sieges and a halt to air strikes on civilian areas must stop before negotiations can start.
“Before we go on February 25 those measures should be implemented in reality on the land,” said Riad Hijab, chief coordinator of the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee opposition umbrella group.
On the eve of the Munich talks, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hit out at Washington for its support for Syrian Kurds fighting jihadists, accusing it of creating a “pool of blood.”
Ankara sees the Syrian Kurdish militia as a branch of the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party, which has carried out a string of deadly attacks in Turkey in the past months.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also criticized as “hypocritical” calls by some countries for Ankara to open its borders to Syrian refugees while failing to demand Russia halts air strikes.
US President Barack Obama’s special envoy to the coalition fighting the jihadist ISIS group echoed him.
“What Russia’s doing is directly enabling ISIL (or ISIS),” said Brett McGurk in reference to air strikes carried out by Moscow’s warplanes in and around Aleppo in support of the Damascus regime.
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