Rebel-held eastern Aleppo could be "totally destroyed" by year's end if a campaign of ferocious bombardment of the Syrian city by Russia and Syria continues, a senior U.N. envoy warned on Thursday.
Speaking at a news conference in Geneva, the U.N.'s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, also appealed to fighters from an Al Qaeda-linked faction to depart from opposition-held areas, saying their presence provided an "easy alibi" for aerial attacks to continue. The northern Syrian city has been pounded for two weeks by punishing airstrikes that have killed nearly 300 people, many of them children.
Desperate conditions prevail in rebel-controlled neighborhoods that have been targeted by Russian and Syrian aircraft, according to witnesses, monitors and aid groups. Medical centers and civil-defense headquarters have been struck repeatedly, with the city's few remaining doctors struggling daily to treat gruesome injuries. Food is in short supply. Whole families have been buried under the rubble of collapsed buildings.
Using some of his strongest language since the breakdown of the cease-fire, De Mistura likened the growing slaughter in Aleppo to genocidal killings in the mid-1990s in the Balkans and Africa.
"There is only one thing we are not ready to do — be passive, resign ourselves to another Srebrenica, another Rwanda," he said.
Directly addressing fighters of the Front for the Conquest of Syria, which formerly called itself Al Nusra Front, the U.N. envoy urged them to leave the city to reduce the peril faced by eastern Aleppo's estimated 275,000 civilians.
"If you decide to leave with dignity ... I am personally ready physically to accompany you," the envoy declared. He said about 900 or 1,000 of the front's fighters were in the city.
That figure represented an apparent downward revision from the U.N.'s previous estimate of the number of fighters in eastern Aleppo tied to the Al Qaeda-linked faction. Last month, De Mistura had said about half the estimated 8,000 fighters in rebel-held Aleppo were aligned with the front — an estimate that had then been cited by Russian Foreign Ministry Sergei Lavrov in defending the bombing campaign.
Aleppo, once a cultural and architectural treasure, has seen some of the worst bombardment of Syria's multisided war, now in its sixth year. De Mistura said rebel-held areas could soon be left utterly in ruins, particularly the historic Old City. Satellite and drone imagery has already shown the destruction of huge swaths of what was once Syria's commercial center and most populous city.
"The bottom line is in a maximum of two months, 2 ½ months, the city of eastern Aleppo at this rate may be totally destroyed," the U.N. envoy said.
De Mistura's comments came as the Syrian army announced a "reduction" in airstrikes on eastern Aleppo, and activists and witnesses reported that late Wednesday and early Thursday had been the quietest since last month's collapse of a U.S.- and Russian-brokered cease-fire.
Syria said an easing of the bombardment would allow civilians in opposition-held districts to flee, but the U.N. questioned that, saying there were reports that key routes in and out of the eastern sector were being blocked. And there appeared to be pessimism on the U.N.'s part that a diminishment of airstrikes would last.
"History will judge them" if the Aleppo offensive continues, De Mistura said of Russia and the Syrian regime. Diplomats have accused the attackers of dropping internationally banned cluster munitions and using battlefield armaments such as "bunker-buster" bombs, in addition to incendiary weapons.
Tenuous diplomatic efforts to halt the bombardment continued. Secretary of State John Kerry held talks on Wednesday with Lavrov despite the U.S. having announced a hiatus in bilateral cooperation on Syria with Russia. The State Department said that breaking off of formal talks did not mean there would be no contact of any kind on Syria.
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