U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday urged the world “to stop the slaughter in Syria” as dozens of international observers pulled out from the country and fighting raged in the city of Aleppo.
“I make a plea to the world: ‘Do not delay... Act now to stop the slaughter in Syria’,” the U.N. secretary-general told parliament in Bosnia, the Balkans country that suffered a genocide in Srebrenica in 1995.
"Today the international community is being tested in Syria," Ban said. "The echoes are deafening: An accelerated slide to civil war. Growing sectarian strife. Villages and children butchered."
The United Nations halved the number of international aid workers deployed in Syria in the past week due to the deteriorating security situation in Damascus, a U.N. source said on Wednesday.
“The United Nations is doing all that we can, but action, meaningful action, will take a concerted effort of the international community. Without unity there will be more bloodshed,” Ban warned.
The decision to “relocate” staff deemed non-essential for humanitarian operations was taken by U.N. security officials last Thursday, a day after an explosion killed four members of President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle in the capital.
“I believe 30 international staff are left in Syria now,” the source told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
John Ging, a senior U.N. aid official, said on July 16 - two days before the bombing - that 60 expatriate staff were working in the country at the time. But Syria was refusing visas to Western aid workers, hampering U.N. aid efforts.
A U.N. official in Geneva said that critical humanitarian work would continue with the staff remaining in Syria.
“Non-essential staff have been relocated from Syria in view of the deteriorating security situation. Non-essential missions to Syria have been put on hold,” said the official.
Another U.N. source said staff had gone to Amman and Beirut while waiting to see how the situation evolved.
The Syrian army turned its forces on Aleppo on Wednesday, ordering an armored column to advance on the city and pounding rebels there with artillery and attack helicopters, opposition activists said.
At least 129 people have been killed across Syria on Wednesday by security force gunfire, Local Coordinating Committees in Syria reported.
White House spokesman Jay Carney issued the reaction aboard Air Force One following the reports that helicopter gunships strafed several neighborhoods in Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital.
“The Assad government is reportedly using helicopters, fixed-wing aircrafts as well as tanks, to perpetrate heinous violence against Syrian people and unarmed civilians,” Carney said.
“We condemn that. This is another indication of the depth of depravity that Assad and his government have demonstrated themselves capable of using,” he said.
Russia, Syria’s main international ally, said on Wednesday it had clearly told the Syrian government it was unacceptable to threaten to use chemical weapons, after Damascus warned it might do so if faced with foreign intervention.
In a meeting with Syria’s ambassador to Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov “laid out in an extremely clear form Russia’s position on the inadmissibility of any threats of the use of chemical weapons,” the ministry said.
The United Nations has been trying to launch a full-scale humanitarian operation in Syria after being shut out of the country for most of the 16-month-old conflict.
About 1.5 million Syrians need assistance, according to the world body whose food, medical supplies and other relief items are distributed by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.
“We are still focusing on scaling up (operations). That is, our priorities have not changed,” the U.N. official said.
Meanwhile, the United States on Wednesday condemned Syria’s use of attack helicopters in its civil conflict as “another indication of the depth of depravity” of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Syria, Lebanon trade criticism
Meanwhile, Syria and Lebanon on Wednesday traded accusations about cross-border violations, each saying the other had breached their shared frontier.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour sent an official protest note to Damascus at the request of President Michel Sleiman, who on Monday issued rare criticism of border infractions by Syria.
Mansour told journalists he sent “a note to the Syrian side via diplomatic channels, raising the border violations and requesting that they not be repeated.”
Syria responded with its own letter of protest “dealing with violations on the Lebanese border against Syria in the past five months,” a diplomatic source told AFP.
Syria demanded that Lebanon bolster border controls to prevent violations such as shooting into Syria, arms smuggling and infiltrations.
Sleiman on Monday accused Syria of violating Lebanese territory after a house in the eastern Qaa region was hit by a blast and shells fired from Syria slammed into several villages along the northern border.