UN says hundreds of Aleppo escapees missing, rebels block others from leaving
GENEVA - Hundreds of men may have gone missing after fleeing into government-controlled parts of Aleppo, the UN warned Friday, saying armed groups were reportedly blocking civilians from leaving the shrinking areas under their control.
As Syrian government artillery pummelled the rebel territory in Aleppo, the UN rights office said both sides appeared to be operating in "flagrant violation of international humanitarian law", and that civilians were paying the price.
"While it's very 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," spokesman Rupert Colville told reporters in Geneva.
He said the men were between the ages of 30 and 50, and their family members said they had lost contact with them after they fled opposition-controlled areas of Aleppo around a week or 10 days ago.
"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," Colville said.
His comments came as Syrian government artillery bombarded the fast-shrinking rebel enclave in the heart of Aleppo on Friday.
The army has recaptured 85 percent of the eastern sector of the city which the rebels had held since summer 2012.
More than 400 civilians, including 45 children, have been killed in eastern Aleppo since the latest offensive began on November 15, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, while rebel fire into the government-controlled west is reported to have killed more than 100 people, including 35 children.
The assault has also prompted a mass exodus from east Aleppo where at least 80,000 people have fled their homes, according to the monitor.
Colville warned that "there have been allegations of reprisals against civilians who are perceived to have supported armed opposition groups" as they fled into government-held areas.
He said some 150 activists remained stranded inside opposition-controlled Aleppo due to fears of being detained by government forces if they attempt to leave.
It is unclear how many civilians remain in rebel territory, but there were an estimated 250,000 in east Aleppo before the latest offensive.
Colville said Friday that more than 100,000 people were believed to remain inside the areas controlled by the opposition in east Aleppo, but warned the situation was very fluid and the numbers were unclear.
- Civilians used 'as pawns' -
He said armed Syrian opposition groups were reportedly blocking civilians from leaving their shrinking enclave, and had allegedly abducted and killed people who protested their presence.
"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," Colville said.
He warned that "the war crime of hostage taking is also possibly being committed."
Over the last two weeks, he said armed groups, including Fateh al-Sham, the former Al-Qaeda affiliate previously known as Al-Nusra Front had allegedly "abducted and killed an unknown number of civilians who requested the armed groups to leave their neighbourhoods, to spare the lives of civilians."
In addition, the groups had reportedly "demanded that activists inform them of civilians attempting to leave, along with the names of those who participated in protests" against their presence in several neighbourhoods, Colville said.