Middle East

Syrian war: Assad says Aleppo bombing was justified

A boy pushes a wheelchair along a damaged street in the east Aleppo neighbourhood of al-Mashatiyeh, Syria, in this handout picture provided by UNHCR on 4 January 2017 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Aleppo has been left devastated after nearly six years of war

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said the bombing of eastern Aleppo, which his forces recaptured from rebels last month, was justified.

"This is the price sometimes, but at the end, the people are liberated from the terrorists," he told French media.

The UN says air strikes by the government and its allies on a civilian-packed area in the battle's final stages were probably a war crime.

Russia joined Syria's strikes on anti-government rebels in 2015.

Alongside Turkey, Moscow helped to negotiate a fragile ceasefire in Syria that is largely holding, despite claims of violations from both sides of the conflict.

Both countries and Iran are now pushing for peace talks to be held later this month in the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana.

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An estimated 21,500 civilians have been killed in Aleppo since the battle there began about five years ago, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

In comments to French media that were published by Syrian state news agency Sana, President Assad described the devastation of eastern Aleppo and killing of civilians as "painful for us as Syrians to see", adding: "Every war is bad."

But, he added, "is it better to leave [civilians] under their [rebels'] supervision, under their oppression, by beheading, by killing?"

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption About 50,000 people were estimated to be trapped in east Aleppo as the battle drew to an end

Thousands of civilians trapped in just a handful of rebel-held districts faced intense bombardment as government troops advanced through the city.

The rebels eventually surrendered it three weeks ago as part of a deal to allow civilians and rebels to travel to other rebel-held areas in northern Syria.

According to the UN, 36,000 people were evacuated from east Aleppo to opposition areas in Idlib and western Aleppo countryside, while 38,750 crossed into west Aleppo.

The loss of eastern Aleppo is considered the biggest blow to the rebels in nearly six years of civil war.

"It's a tipping point in the course of the war and it is on the way to victory," President Assad said.

Touching on the proposed talks in Astana, for which no date has been set, President Assad said his government was ready to negotiate on "everything".

"Who will be there from the other side? We do not yet know. Will it be a real Syrian opposition?" President Assad said, dismissing rebel groups backed by Saudi Arabia, France and the UK.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Control of the water supply in Damascus is at the heart of a new battle between rebel and government forces

It is not yet clear who will represent the opposition.

Syrian says the ceasefire currently in place excludes so-called Islamic State (IS) and rival jihadist group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, as well as the Syrian Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG) militia - though rebels dispute this.

President Assad also claimed the rebels were breaching the ceasefire in and around Damascus, accusing them of depriving civilians of water by "occupying the main water source" from the Wadi Barada, a valley in the hills north-west of the capital that is the location of several springs.

Rebels deny contaminating the water source and say the government has damaged the infrastructure.