Middle East

Syria conflict: All parties committed war crimes in Aleppo - UN

Syrian men carrying babies make their way through the rubble of destroyed buildings following a reported air strike on the rebel-held Salihin district of the northern city of Aleppo (11 September 2016) Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Syrian and Russian government deny targeting civilians in what was rebel-held Aleppo

UN human rights investigators say Syrian civilians fell victim to war crimes committed by all parties during the battle for Aleppo last year.

Daily air strikes by Syria's government and its ally Russia claimed hundreds of lives, according to a new report.

Government forces also dropped chlorine bombs, resulting in hundreds of civilian casualties, it alleges.

Rebels are meanwhile accused of firing shells indiscriminately at government-held areas and of using human shields.

The evacuation of the rebel enclave in eastern Aleppo in December, which brought the battle to an end, also amounted to forced displacement, the investigators say.

The investigators from the UN Human Rights Council's commission of inquiry on Syria interviewed hundreds of eyewitnesses, and examined satellite imagery and remnants of explosive devices.

They found civilians caught in the fighting during the last six months of the battle for Aleppo were left vulnerable to repeated violations of international law.

What did they say about air strikes?

As part of a strategy to force those inside the city's rebel-held east to surrender, pro-government forces imposed a siege in late July, trapping civilians without adequate food or medical supplies, and stepped up an aerial campaign.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Hospitals in eastern Aleppo were repeatedly targeted in September, October and November

The investigators singled out the air strikes that destroyed or otherwise rendered all hospitals in eastern Aleppo out of service by December, noting that no military targets were identified as being present in or around the facilities, and that no warnings were given prior to any of the attacks.

The report does not, however, state explicitly that Russian air strikes violated international law. The Syrian and Russian air forces use the same planes and many of the same weapons, and UN investigators were unable to connect Russia to any particular incident.

At the time, both the Syrian and Russian governments denied targeting civilians or civilian infrastructure, and blamed rebel fighters for operating in residential areas.

The report also alleges that Syrian government forces carried out September's attack on a humanitarian convoy in a rebel-held town west of Aleppo, in which 15 aid workers died.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The UN denounced the aid convoy attack as "savage and apparently deliberate"

The attack was carefully planned, the report alleges. Bombs designed for soft targets were chosen, and when the aircraft ran out of bombs, they strafed survivors.

The Syrian government has denied responsibility for the convoy attack, which the US alleged at the time was carried out by Russian warplanes. Russia meanwhile suggested that a US drone was to blame.

What about chemical weapons?

The UN investigators said an "alarming number" of allegations of the use of chlorine were reported during the siege of eastern Aleppo. In at least two incidents, they found, chlorine bombs were dropped by government forces.

The use of chlorine as a weapon is prohibited by international law as well as the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Syria is a party.

Image copyright Reuters/AMC/Human Rights Watch
Image caption A gas cylinder was found on a street in Aleppo after an alleged chlorine attack in November

The Syrian government has always denied using chemical weapons, although the UN has accused it of dropping chlorine bombs in three attacks in 2014 and 2015.

What are the rebels accused of?

The investigators also found that throughout the siege, rebel groups continuously shelled western Aleppo using mostly unguided and imprecise weaponry, including so-called "hell cannons". Dozens of civilians were killed or injured.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Rebel shellfire killed or injured dozens of people in government-held western Aleppo

The report says the attacks were launched without a clear military target and intentionally terrorised the civilian population, constituting a war crime.

As the situation deteriorated in eastern Aleppo, some armed groups withheld humanitarian aid from civilians, violently prevented them from trying to flee across the frontline and used them as human shields, according to the investigators.

What happened after Aleppo fell?

The report says the fall of Aleppo was "characterised by reprisals, the most serious of which were executions by members of pro-government forces of hors de combat armed groups fighters and the murder of their civilian family members".

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Some men who fled to government-controlled Aleppo were required to do military service

There were also reports of arbitrary arrests of persons suspected of belonging to rebel groups, including doctors, and of men and boys being subjected to forced conscription.

The government has rejected claims that it killed or detained non-combatants.