GENEVA // Both sides in the battle for Aleppo committed war crimes, including Syrian government aircraft that “deliberately” bombed and strafed a humanitarian convoy, killing 14 aid workers and halting relief operations, UN investigators said on Wednesday.
Syrian and Russian forces conducted “daily air strikes” on rebel-held eastern Aleppo between July and its fall on December 22, killing hundreds and destroying hospitals, they said in their latest report.
Cluster munitions were “pervasively used” and airdropped into densely-populated areas, amounting to the war crime of indiscriminate attacks.
But investigators could not say whether both Syrian and Russian forces had used them in Aleppo. Nor could they attribute any specific war crime to the Russians because both Syrian and Russian air forces use mostly the same aircraft and weapons and both were in control of the skies over Aleppo.
The report by the UN Commission of Inquiry — released as Syrian peace talks continue in Geneva — covers the July-December period and is based on 291 interviews with victims and witnesses, as well as analysis of forensic evidence and satellite imagery. These showed that Syrian helicopters unleashed toxic chlorine bombs — a banned weapon — “throughout 2016” on Aleppo, causing hundreds of civilian casualties, while opposition groups shelled government-controlled western Aleppo, killing and injuring dozens. They prevented civilians from fleeing eastern Aleppo, using them as “human shields”, and attacked the residential Kurdish district of Sheikh Maqsoud, both war crimes.
But the report concludes the US-led coalition did not conduct any offensive air missions over Aleppo in the second half of the year.
Syrian and Russian warplanes dropped unguided munitions, known as indiscriminate “dumb bombs” rather than smart bombs that have electronic sensors to find their targets.
These included aerial bombs, air-to-surface rockets, cluster munitions, incendiary bombs, barrel bombs, and weapons delivering toxic industrial chemicals.
The investigators accused the Syrian government of a “meticulously planned and ruthlessly carried out” air raid on a UN and Syrian Red Crescent convoy at Orum Al-Kubra, in rural western Aleppo on September 19 that killed 14 aid workers. A previous UN inquiry had been unable to determine who conducted the strike.
“By using air-delivered munitions with the knowledge that humanitarian workers were operating in the location, Syrian forces committed the war crimes of deliberately attacking humanitarian relief personnel, denial of humanitarian aid, and attacking civilians,” the report said.
Survivors “consistently described” three stages of attack. “First helicopters dropped barrel bombs, which struck the warehouse and a family home nearby ... Subsequently, planes, described by several witnesses as Sukhoi jets, carried out attacks, killing several aid workers. Lastly the aircraft fired machine guns at survivors.”
During the recapture of eastern Aleppo, pro-government forces arrested doctors and aid workers and committed reprisal executions, the report said.
During Wednesday’s session of talks, the Syrian opposition said that they had been told by UN mediator Staffan de Mistura that negotiators for the Syrian government were prepared to discuss a political transition, after coming under pressure from Russia.
Meanwhile back in Syria, heavy fighting continued between the Syrian army and rebels in several Damascus suburbs, killing 13 regime fighters, including a general overseeing operations against rebels in the north-east of the Syrian capital.
And in Washington, the US government is investigating whether Abu Khayr Al Masri, Al-Qaeda’s number two, has been killed in Syria, in a reported US air raid in or around Idlib.
Egyptian-born Masri, 59, was a son-in-law of Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and was believed to be deputy to the group’s current leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri.
* Agence France-Presse