Middle East

Syria war: Those bombing Aleppo 'must answer to God' - Pope

Pope Francis talks as he leads the weekly audience in Saint Peter"s Square at the Vatican September 28, 2016 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Pope Francis urged all sides to protect civilians

Pope Francis has decried the bombing of Aleppo in Syria, saying those responsible for killing civilians will have to answer to God.

Speaking in St Peter's Square in Rome, he called it "an already martyred city, where everybody is dying".

Russian-backed Syrian government forces have launched a fierce campaign to take control of rebel-held eastern areas.

At least 96 children have been killed and 223 injured in eastern Aleppo since Friday, children's charity Unicef said.

"The children of Aleppo are trapped in a living nightmare," said Unicef deputy executive director Justin Forsyth on Wednesday. "There are no words left to describe the suffering they are experiencing."

Air strikes continued to hit the besieged neighbourhoods through Tuesday night. Local medical workers said that two major hospitals in eastern Aleppo were put out of service by the bombardment. The extent of the damage to the facilities was not immediately clear.

International medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) tweeted to say that both hospitals were out of service. Adham Sahloul of the US-based Syrian American Medical Society, which supports the two hospitals, said the two attacks took place at the same time, suggesting they were deliberately targeted.

'Urgent obligation'

Addressing crowds in Rome, Pope Francis urged all sides to "commit themselves with all their strength to protect civilians". He said: "This is an imperative and urgent obligation. I appeal to the consciences of those responsible for the bombings, who will one day will have to account to God."

In the past few days, pro-government forces have begun ground operations to try to recapture more territory from rebel forces. They have made advances in the city centre, reports say.

The government of President Bashar al-Assad and its Russian backers have been accused of war crimes and "barbarism" by the US and its Western allies, who back the rebels. Moscow has vigorously denied the allegations and criticised their "unacceptable" rhetoric.

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Media captionOne quiet moment tells of Aleppo's despair: Quentin Somerville reports

Separately, fresh allegations of chemical weapons use on the part of the Syrian government have been made by the New York-based group Human Rights Watch.

It said that Syrian government helicopters appeared to have used chemical weapons in two incidents in Aleppo on 10 August and 6 September that killed five people, including two children.

"After each attack, dozens of people suffering from a shortage of breath, coughing, reddened skin and eyes, and excessive tearing sought medical treatment in hospitals," the group said.

Syrian rebels have been supplied with a new type of surface-to-surface Grad rocket by their foreign backers to help defend against the current offensive, a rebel commander told the Reuters news agency.

The rockets, supplied "in excellent quantities", will be used in Aleppo, Hama and the Mediterranean coastal region, Fares al-Baoush said. It was not clear which foreign states supplied the rockets.

Aleppo, once Syria's largest city and the country's commercial and industrial hub, has been divided roughly in two since 2012, with President Bashar al-Assad's forces controlling the west and rebel factions the east.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Air strikes are a constant feature of life in rebel-held parts of Aleppo

In the past year, government troops have gradually broken the deadlock with the help of Iranian-backed militias and Russian air strikes. Earlier this month, they severed the rebels' last route into the east and placed its 250,000 residents under siege.

Children in Aleppo have made up a large proportion of casualties from air strikes, according to aid groups. At least 100,000 children remain trapped in the eastern part of the city.

In the government-held west, 49 children were killed by rebel shelling in July alone, the New York Times reports, citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

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Media captionAleppo: Key battleground in Syria's civil war

On Tuesday, the US pledged to provide an extra $364m (£276m) in humanitarian aid to people affected by the Syrian war.

The World Health Organization meanwhile called for the "immediate establishment of humanitarian routes" into Aleppo, where hospitals are running out of supplies and rubble-strewn streets are preventing ambulances from getting through.

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