UN warns of ‘giant graveyard’ as thousands flee Aleppo fighting

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ALEPPO: The UN’s aid chief warned on Wednesday that Aleppo risked becoming a “giant graveyard” after more than 50,000 people were reported to have fled intense fighting between government and rebel forces.

As the Security Council met for emergency talks on the fighting in New York, Syria’s opposition urged the UN to take immediate steps to protect civilians.

A Syrian government offensive to retake all of the divided city has battered Aleppo in recent days, with regime shelling on an opposition-controlled area reported to have killed at least 26 civilians.

Artillery shells rained down on one southeastern rebel-held district. The motionless body of a girl lay crumpled in the street, her arm severed and her head pierced by shrapnel. Rescue volunteers carried her body away on a motorcycle.

Speaking to a special Security Council session by video-link from London, Stephen O’Brien, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, appealed for action to stop the fighting.

“For the sake of humanity we call on — we plead — with the parties and those with influence to do everything in their power to protect civilians and enable access to the besieged part of eastern Aleppo before it becomes one giant graveyard,” he said.

Civilians have poured out of the besieged rebel-held east, battered by air strikes and heavy artillery fire by the advancing forces of President Bashar al-Assad.

Government troops and allied fighters have seized a third of the rebel-held east of Aleppo since they began an operation to recapture all of the city just over a fortnight ago.

They now fully control the city’s northeast and pressed their offensive on Aleppo’s southeastern edges, advancing in the Sheikh Saeed district, according to state news agency SANA.

The loss of Aleppo would be the biggest blow for Syria’s opposition since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests, before spiralling into a civil war.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said that more than 50,000 people have fled Aleppo’s rebel-held districts, including at least 20,000 to government-held territory and another 30,000 to Kurdish-controlled districts. Many others have travelled south into the remaining territory held by rebels.

The UN has for months sought access to the east, but a plan it presented earlier this month to deliver aid has yet to be approved by the government. The Security Council session in New York was to later hear from the UN’s peace envoy Staffan de Mistura.

Syria’s opposition National Coalition said it was working with France on a draft UN resolution seeking an immediate ceasefire in Aleppo, though regime ally Russia was likely to veto such a proposal.

Coalition head Anas al-Abdeh on Wednesday urged the UN to “take immediate, definitive steps to protect civilians in Aleppo and stop the barbaric offensive against them.” “This escalation is a war crime and a crime against humanity, another item on the Assad regime’s long, bloody, barbaric list,” Abdeh said.

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