Briefing notes: Syria, 9 December 2016
Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Rupert Colville
Date: 9 December 2016
We are gravely concerned about the safety of civilians in Aleppo – those who remain in opposition-controlled areas as well as those who have fled to areas under Government control.
Those who remain in opposition-controlled areas are being squeezed into ever-shrinking areas, as Government forces and their allies have continued their advance and concentrated their firepower in recent days. We believe there may currently be around 100,000 civilians in areas under the control of armed opposition groups in eastern Aleppo, with another 30,000 believed to have fled to areas under Government control.
We are also concerned about the approximately 500 medical cases involving people in need of urgent evacuation from opposition-held areas. The Syrian Civil Defence is reported to be barely operating, given severely weakened capacities and a chronic shortage of equipment. Small field medical units have been established, although no fully equipped hospital is currently functioning. All available doctors are reported to be at the front lines treating wounded fighters.
As pro-Government forces have advanced from the north into eastern Aleppo, there have been allegations of reprisals against civilians who are perceived to have supported armed opposition groups, as well as reports that men were being separated from women and children. While it is difficult to establish the facts in such a fluid and dangerous situation, we have received very worrying allegations that hundreds of men have gone missing after crossing into Government-controlled areas. Family members say they lost contact with the men, between the ages of 30 and 50, after they fled opposition-controlled areas of Aleppo around a week or ten days ago. There are also approximately 150 activists inside opposition-controlled Aleppo who fear being detained by Government forces if they attempt to leave. Given the terrible record of arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearances by the Syrian Government, we are of course deeply concerned about the fate of these individuals.
Some of the civilians who have been trying to flee are reportedly being blocked by armed opposition groups. During the last two weeks, Fatah al-Sham Front (formerly al-Nusra Front) and the Abu Amara Battalion are alleged to have abducted and killed an unknown number of civilians who requested the armed groups to leave their neighbourhoods, to spare the lives of civilians. The groups have reportedly demanded that activists inform them of civilians attempting to leave, along with the names of those who participated in protests against the presence of Fatah al-Sham Front and groups affiliated with them in al-Ferdous and Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhoods a few weeks earlier. We have also received reports that between 30 November and 1 December, armed opposition groups fired on civilians attempting to leave in the Bustan al-Qasr area towards Government-controlled Msharqa.
Civilians are caught between warring parties that appear to be operating in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law. Indiscriminate attacks, with little effort taken to avoid civilian casualties, have been conducted on heavily populated areas on both sides of the city. Civilians are being used as pawns and prevented from leaving - in blatant violation of the obligation to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians from the effects of attack. The war crime of hostage taking is also possibly being committed.
It is important not to lose sight of what is happening elsewhere in Syria.
The situation of civilian in neighbouring Idleb Governorate, the largest remaining opposition-controlled area in western Syria, is also cause for grave and growing concern. Increased attacks have killed and injured civilians, with numerous airstrikes resulting in the deaths of dozens of civilians in recent days. We urge all parties to prevent a repeat of the horrors of Aleppo and call on the international community to urgently set aside political differences and focus on ensuring that civilians in Syria are spared further terror, death and devastation.
For more information and media requests, please contact Rupert Colville (+41 22 917 9767 / firstname.lastname@example.org) or Ravina Shamdasani (+41 22 917 9169 / email@example.com ) or Liz Throssell ( +41 22 917 9466/ firstname.lastname@example.org )