Air strikes kill civilians in Aleppo as peace hopes dim

At least 19 dead in attacks by government warplanes, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.
An injured girl is carried to safety after an air strike on a rebel-held area of Aleppo, Syria, on April 22, 2016. Abdalrhman Ismail / Reuters
An injured girl is carried to safety after an air strike on a rebel-held area of Aleppo, Syria, on April 22, 2016. Abdalrhman Ismail / Reuters

ALEPPO // Air strikes on rebel-held neighbourhoods in Syria’s second city Aleppo on Friday killed at least 18 civilians and wounded more than a dozen, the civil defence said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government warplanes carried out the air strikes and gave a toll of 19 dead.

Seven civilians were killed and 10 wounded in Bustan Al Qasr, a civil defence member said, and four were killed in Al Mashad.

The strikes killed five civilians in the opposition-held Salhin district and two more in other neighbourhoods.

The air strikes come amid increasing fears that a fragile nationwide ceasefire may be breaking down. The main opposition group on Monday suspended its participation in peace talks in Geneva as fighting began to increase in parts of Syria where the ceasefire had largely held since February.

However, the Higher Negotiations Committee (HNC) spokesman Salem Al Meslet said on Friday that UN mediator Staffan de Mistura had decided the talks would continue until Wednesday, and that the delegation might return to the negotiating table “if we see major and serious steps on the ground”.

The HNC accuses the government of repeatedly violating the US and Russian-brokered cease-fire, illegally detaining thousands of people and blocking humanitarian aid access.

France’s foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, warned that the negotiations over Syria’s political future had entered a “danger zone.”

Speaking in Paris, he said humanitarian access to besieged areas “must be total” and there had been “too many fetters”.

The Syrian government’s envoy to peace talks in Geneva, Bashar Jaafari, defended its record on humanitarian aid, lashing out at the opposition for shedding “crocodile tears” about alleged humanitarian aid lapses.

Mr Jaafari spoke to reporters at UN offices in Geneva where the indirect peace talks and other meetings on Syria’s crisis have been held in recent months. He said his delegation would meet with Mr de Mistura again on Monday.

Despite the ceasefire, which excludes ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, the country has been rocked by fighting in recent weeks, particularly around Aleppo. Last Sunday, six civilians were killed in government strikes on eastern parts of the city, and another 16 were killed by rebel rocket fire.

One of the strikes on Friday sheared off part of an entire floor of a five-storey block of flats in Bustan Al Qasr, one of Aleppo’s most heavily populated neighbourhoods.

“We were sleeping at 10am when the strike hit the fourth floor of the building,” said Ahmad Radi.

“We ran down and found the bodies all over the ground.”

Civil defence volunteers climbed into the building to search for families trapped in the rubble.

Some emerged carrying squirming infants blanketed in dust, while others held limp bodies covered in white sheets.

“It’s become normal here for people to die every day. No one even mourns anymore,” one Bustan Al Qasr resident said.

“The next day, everyone opens their shops and things carry on as if nothing happened. But everyone living here has lost someone.”

“A surprising number of wounded showed up at the field hospital, around 20 people,” one medic in an opposition-held neighbourhood said.

“It’s more than we can handle,” he said, and added that field hospitals in other neighbourhoods were also struggling to cope.

The Britain-based anti-government observatory said a total of 14 air strikes had targeted Bustan Al Qasr and other neighbourhoods.

It said they killed 19 people and wounded dozens more.

“The number of martyrs is expected to rise because many of those wounded are in critical condition,” said the monitor, which relies on a network of sources inside Syria for its reports.

Once Syria’s commercial hub, Aleppo has been divided between rebel control in the east and government forces in the west since 2012.

Nearly all warring parties in Syria – the government, rebels, extremists and Kurds – have carved out zones of control in the province.

Also Friday, a government plane crashed south-east of Damascus, and an ISIL website said the extremist group, which operates in the area, downed the MIG-23. There was no immediate comment from the Syrian government.

Meanwhile, Kurdish activists said Syrian government forces and Kurdish fighters were clashing for a third day in the north-eastern city of Qamishli, with at least seven people killed. Lezkin Ibrahim, a Kurdish media activist in Qamishli, said the fighting Friday was concentrated in the city centre, forcing residents to stay indoors and shops to close.

Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011 with anti-government protests, but has since spiralled into a multi-front war that has left more than 270,000 people dead.

* Agence France-Presse and Associated Press

Published: April 23, 2016 04:00 AM

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