U.N. Syria envoy warns Aleppo could be ‘destroyed’

Associated Press

Geneva — The U.N. envoy for Syria called on al-Qaida-linked militants to leave the embattled city of Aleppo in exchange for an end to government and Russian bombardment, warning Thursday that thousands of civilians could be killed and the historic city “destroyed” by year end if conditions do not soon change.

Special envoy Staffan de Mistura urged fighters from Fatah al-Sham Front to leave the city in exchange for peace. The group was previously known as Nusra Front and changed its name after announcing it had split from al-Qaida earlier this year. The U.N. considers it a terrorist organization.

De Mistura entreated both sides to “look at my eyes” before offering to “personally” escort the fighters to a refuge of their choosing, provided they agree to lay down their arms.

The combined Syrian government and Russian bombardment of the city’s rebel-held east has killed 376 people over the last two weeks, the envoy said. While far fewer have been killed in the western side, which has a population of over a million, presumed rebel shelling killed at least eight people on Thursday, Syrian state media and observers said. It marked one of the bloodiest days in recent memory for government-held neighborhoods of the city.

De Mistura acknowledged that the fighters would “need some guarantees” before an evacuation to another rebel-held part of the country, but said these would have to come from the government. He also called for the local administration in opposition-held eastern neighborhoods to remain in place after Fatah al-Sham leaves, with the U.N. establishing a presence there to bring humanitarian supplies to the besieged population.

His proposals marked the first major initiative by the U.N. to help find a way out of the Syria crisis after the United States, citing in part the Aleppo onslaught, suspended its joint effort with Russia to stop the fighting.

Yet rebel fighters in Aleppo expressed deep skepticism over the terms of de Mistura’s proposal. They say the Fatah al-Sham Front has been instrumental to the east’s defense, having led an August counter-offensive that briefly broke the government’s siege. The U.N. estimates 275,000 people are trapped in eastern Aleppo.

Ammar Sakkar, a military spokesman for Fastiqum rebel group, said the evacuation plan was “a form of trickery” that would allow pro-government forces to carry out a “longer period of killing and crime.” He accused the U.N. of holding a “double standard,” arguing that before calling for fighters to leave it must “first stop the head of terrorism and stop his own acts of terrorism and crime against the Syrian people,” referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Assad denied reports that his government was targeting hospitals and civilian infrastructure.