Civilians in and around the commercial capital of Aleppo are under increased threat from air strikes, artillery and gunfire as they battle for control of its streets, a recent field investigation by an international rights group revealed Saturday.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on commanders of government forces and the Free Syrian Army to abide laws of war and never target civilians or conducts indiscriminate attacks after it conducted a week-long field investigation in northern Aleppo province early this month.
“As Syria deploys helicopters, fighter jets, tanks, and heavy artillery in populated areas of Aleppo, it should do everything feasible to protect civilians from harm,” said Anna Neistat, acting emergencies director at HRW in a press statement. “At the same time, the Free Syrian Army forces in and around the city should do what they can to minimize the risk to civilians in the fighting.”
The group’s researchers documented an August 7 incident in Tel Rifat, a town about 40 kilometers north of Aleppo city, in which a government aircraft dropped bombs near a school holding an opposition civil administration, a court and a small detention facility, and was guarded by a few armed men.
None of the munitions hit the school but one of them struck a nearby house, instantly killing nine members of the Blaw family, HRW said. FSA fighters who were staying in another school nearby may have been the intended target.
“It was impossible at first to tell how many were inside [the Blaw family home]—they were blown apart into small pieces,” a witness to the attack told HRW. “There were several small children, with hands and legs torn off, and heads so distorted, it was impossible to recognize them.”
The group also expressed concern about the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in the area, where residents and displaced people are experiencing serious shortages of fuel, water and food. Hospitals in Aleppo and nearby villages also lack equipment and supplies to give the wounded medical care, HRW said.
In four towns and villages in northern Aleppo province visited by Human Rights Watch, displaced people, many of them women and children, had received no assistance, aside from the minimal aid provided by local residents. They were staying in empty houses or schools, many without mattresses, blankets and other necessities.
Investigators found no evidence to support Syrian government claims that FSA forces were preventing civilians from fleeing Aleppo, HRW said. To the contrary, it said, all interview subjects said FSA soldiers had encouraged them to leave the areas under attack, and helped them to flee the city by providing cars, gasoline, and advice on safe routes.