The UN is working with Russia to bring about a “humanitarian pause” to fighting in Syria’s Aleppo, hours after reports of a gas attack on rebel-held districts of the city.
Conditions are rapidly deteriorating in what is Syria’s largest city, which is divided between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the west and rebels seeking to oust him in the east. After days of fierce fighting for control of the city, the two sides have cut each other’s supply routes, leaving approximately 2m residents trapped with dwindling supplies of food, water and medicine.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s special envoy for Syria, told journalists that reports of a suspected chlorine attack on the rebel-held district of Zabadieh were being investigated and that if it was confirmed it would amount to a war crime.
“There is a lot of evidence that it actually did take place,” he said.
Both Syrian warplanes and Russia, which has intervened militarily on Mr Assad’s behalf, have been bombarding opposition areas since rebel forces aligned with jihadi groups to advance on the regime-held side of the city and cut off their supply routes. The fighting has cut water pumps in the city as well, leaving residents without a reliable source of running water during a region-wide heatwave.
Reports of chlorine and other toxic gas attacks are common in Syria despite a 2013 Russian-brokered deal to remove the country’s chemical weapons stockpile, after Mr Assad was accused of launching what appeared to be a sarin gas attack on rebel-held districts outside of the capital Damascus.
Chlorine, a common household substance, is not a banned substance under the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons treaty.
Doctors reported three people — a woman and two children — were killed in the attack on Aleppo overnight and described dozens of other victims suffering from choking and burning symptoms.
“There are 95 people who have been injured and they are all civilians,” said Hisham Skaff, a spokesman for the Nour al-Din al-Zinki rebel group. “A lot of children have been affected — their lips turn blue and get swollen,” he said, sending pictures of one of the children reported to have been wounded.
A Syrian official told Reuters news agency the allegations were false, calling it a fabrication by the opposition.
Last week, pro-government news agencies said rebels had launched rockets with chlorine at government districts in Aleppo, while opposition activists reported a poison gas attack in northwestern Idlib. The purported toxic attack in Idlib hit a town close to the site where rebels shot down a Russian helicopter, killing all five crew members.
On Wednesday, Russia said it would implement a daily three-hour halt in air strikes, from 10am to 1pm local time, to allow humanitarian convoys to enter the city. But residents contacted in the city say there was no halt in the bombardment on Thursday.
“Since 11 in the morning until now, I have been outside the house and the sounds of war planes and shelling hasn’t left my ears,” activist Abdelkafi al-Maghrabi told journalists in an online chat group.
The fighting in Aleppo has left both sides facing increasing shortages, but the problem is particularly severe on the rebel side, which before this week had been under a weeks-long siege by Russian-backed Assad forces. The rebels broke the siege during the weekend, but shelling has been so intense that only small truckloads of food have entered the city.
Medics working in opposition districts say they have yet to receive any medical supplies despite an urgent need; more than 10 hospitals have been bombed in the past month.
Jan Egeland, a humanitarian adviser to the UN, said Russia’s proposed three-hour cessation was not enough, and said a 48-hour pause was necessary to bring in enough supplies safely. But he praised Moscow’s agreement to meet the UN, along with Washington, which backs the opposition, to discuss a way to allow humanitarian supplies to be delivered. “We are hopeful that will lead to something,” he said.
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