‘Doomsday today in Aleppo’

‘Doomsday today in Aleppo’

A Syrian family leaves the area following a reported airstrike on Friday, on the al-Muasalat area in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. (AFP photo)
A Syrian family leaves the area following a reported airstrike on Friday, on the al-Muasalat area in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. (AFP photo)

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA - Syria’s war escalated abruptly on Friday as government forces and their Russian allies launched ferocious aerial assaults on opposition-held areas of Aleppo amid threats of a big ground offensive, while efforts at the United Nations to revive a cease-fire appeared to collapse.

Repeated airstrikes that obliterated buildings and engulfed neighborhoods in flames killed about 100 people in Aleppo, the divided northern Syrian city that has epitomised the horrors of the war, turning the brief cease-fire of last week and hopes for humanitarian relief into faint memories.

The bombings knocked out running water to an estimated 2 million people, the United Nations said.

“It is the worst day that we’ve had for a very long time,” said James Le Mesurier, the head of Mayday Rescue, which trains Syrian rescue workers. “They are calling it Dresden-esque.”

The bombings shook the ground, left residents buried in debris or cowering in their homes and made streets impassible, according to anti-government activists reached in Aleppo.

“You don’t know if you might stay alive or not,” said Modar Shekho, a nurse at al-Dakkak hospital in an opposition-held part of the city.

“There are no more roads to walk on,” said Zaher Azzaher, an Aleppo activist contacted through WhatsApp. “Even between our neighbourhoods, the roads are full of rubble and destruction.”

The bombardment targeted rebel-held districts in eastern Aleppo and opposition communities in the surrounding countryside. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which opposes the government of President Bashar Assad and tracks the conflict from Britain via a network of contacts in Syria, said 72 people had been killed in all of Aleppo province, including 24 women and children. But most of the dead were in the city itself.

Mr Le Mesurier reported 95 dead and 147 people hospitalised in Aleppo city alone.

Rescue workers shared numerous videos of men digging children out of piles of debris and whole neighborhoods reduced to rubble.

Hanaa Singer, the representative for Unicef in Syria, said in a statement that attacks had damaged the pumping station that provides water to eastern Aleppo, where 250,000 residents are surrounded by government troops. In retaliation, Ms Singer said, a pumping station on the city’s east side was shut off, stopping water from flowing to 1.5 million residents on the west side.

The population would have to rely on well water, which is often contaminated and would raise the risk of outbreaks of disease, she said.

Ammar al-Salmo, head of the Aleppo branch of Syria Civil Defense, a volunteer rescue organisation, said that three of his group’s centres had been bombed and that some of their rescue vehicles had been knocked out.

“It is as if Russia and the regime used the truce only to maintain their weapons and plan on next targets,” al-Salmo said from Aleppo. “It is like doomsday today in Aleppo.”

The Syrian government announced the new offensive in its state-controlled news media, quoting an unidentified Syrian military official who described the Aleppo operation as “comprehensive” and said that it could continue for some time.

The official said the operation would “include a ground offensive”.

Many analysts have said Syria’s military does not have the manpower to seize and hold significant territory. Its air force, however, has been able to pummel rebel-held areas with relative impunity.

As airstrikes intensified, any hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough between Russia and the United States, which support opposite sides in the conflict, disintegrated in New York, on the sidelines of the annual conclave of the UN General Assembly.

Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, met briefly, but there was no indication that a short-lived cessation of hostilities that ended early this week would be revived anytime soon.

Speaking at his own news conference, Mr Lavrov said the United States had failed to ensure that moderate Syrian rebels separated themselves from extremist militants of the al-Qaida-allied Nusra Front.

That separation is one of the conditions in the cessation-of-hostilities agreement Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov announced on Sept 9.

Until that happens, Mr Lavrov said, any other measures would be “senseless”.

Jean-Marc Ayrault, the foreign minister of France and a member of the International Syria Support Group, the 17-nation effort led by Russia and the United States, said earlier on Friday that he feared the diplomatic paralysis reflected a growing weariness with the daily brutalities in Syria.

“Will we be inured to this?” he asked. “Let’s not let Aleppo become the 21st-century Guernica.”

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and industrial centre before the civil war began in 2011, has been divided for years between government and rebel forces.

Before the partial cease-fire declared last week, rebels often shelled civilian neighborhoods in western Aleppo, and warplanes and missiles launched by Mr Assad’s military regularly struck the city’s rebel-held east, cutting civilians off from much-needed aid.

The death and destruction in Aleppo have become enduring images of the war, which has killed an estimated 500,000 people, displaced roughly half the Syrian population and created the biggest refugee crisis since World War II.

Unosat, a branch of the United Nations that has analyzed satellite data of Aleppo since the conflict began, said that imagery showed a city increasingly pockmarked by devastation.

Lars Bromley, a Unosat research adviser, said recent satellite pictured detailed a marked expansion of destroyed areas -- before the latest bombardments.

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