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Aleppo battle: UN alarm as 16,000 civilians flee government advance

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  • Syrian civil war
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image captionThe Syrian Arab Red Crescent and local NGOs are helping the displaced, the UN says

Up to 16,000 civilians have been displaced by the Syrian government's advance into besieged rebel-held areas of the city of Aleppo, the UN says.

Humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien said thousands more were likely to flee if the fighting continued to spread and intensify in the coming days.

He expressed concern about their fate, calling the situation deeply alarming.

Troops and militiamen have retaken more than a third of the rebel-held eastern half of Aleppo since the weekend.

Overnight, at least 18 people were killed in government air strikes on the remaining rebel-held areas, including 12 in the Shaar district near the new northern frontline, according to a UK-based monitoring group.

Another 10 died in an air strike in the Bab al-Nairab area on Tuesday morning, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights added.

An opposition activist network said a group of displaced civilians had been targeted and it put the death toll at 25.

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Aleppo was Syria's largest city and its commercial and industrial hub before the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011.

It has been divided in roughly two for the past four years, with the government controlling the west and rebels the east.

But in the past year, Syrian troops have broken the deadlock with the help of Iranian-backed Shia Muslim militias and Russian air strikes.

In early September they reinstated a siege of the east, trapping the 275,000 people living there, and launched an all-out assault later that month.

image copyrightReuters
image captionSyrian government forces have been besieging rebel-held Aleppo since early September
image copyrightReuters
image captionThe government's aerial bombardment has reportedly killed hundreds of people in recent months

Government forces stepped up their offensive two weeks ago and broke through the rebel lines on Saturday. By Monday, they had recaptured the entire northern half of the rebel enclave.

"It's something that can't be imagined," Ahmad Aziz, a resident of a rebel-held area told the BBC. "We are witnessing the worst days ever. We can't move and see each other because of crazy shelling."

Mr O'Brien said he was "extremely concerned about the fate of civilians as a result of the deeply alarming and chilling situation unfolding in Aleppo".

media captionEast Aleppo resident says he would rather die than return to government controlled Syria

"Intensified ground fighting and indiscriminate aerial bombardment over the past few days in eastern Aleppo city has reportedly killed and injured scores of civilians," he added. "There are no functioning hospitals left, and official food stocks are practically finished."

At the same time, Mr O'Brien noted, indiscriminate rebel shelling of civilian areas of government-controlled western Aleppo had killed civilians and displaced more than 20,000 in recent weeks.

Mr O'Brien said initial reports indicated that up to 16,000 people had fled their homes in eastern Aleppo in the past few days for government- and Kurdish-controlled districts, or other rebel-held areas.

image copyrightAFP
image captionSome 275,000 people were living in rebel-held eastern Aleppo before the government's advance
image copyrightAFP
image captionThe government used coaches to take people from the recaptured Jabal Badro district

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent and local non-governmental organisations were helping the displaced, and the UN was ready to deliver aid to rebel-held Aleppo, he added.

A spokeswoman for the UN high commissioner for human rights separately expressed concern that displaced people perceived to have links or connections to rebel groups might be detained by government or Kurdish forces.

Peaceful activists and relatives of rebels have been punished in the past for their provision of support to what the government considers terrorists, she added.

media captionUNHCR spokesperson describes on Radio 4's Today the severity of the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo

The parties to the conflict in Syria, Mr O'Brien said, had "shown time and again" that they were "willing to take any action to secure military advantage even if it means killing, maiming or starving civilians into submission in the process".

Now at last, he pleaded, it was time to "restore basic humanity in Syria".

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