Aleppo pounded by Syrian, Russian airstrikes since ceasefire broke down
Stark satellite images released by the UN show 'awful lot of new damage' in embattled northern city
The UN released stark satellite images Wednesday showing the most recent destruction of Syria's embattled northern city of Aleppo, pounded by Syrian and Russian airstrikes since the collapse of a U.S.-Russia brokered ceasefire two weeks ago.
The release coincides with a stepped-up offensive by Syrian pro-government forces that are attacking the city from the south in a bid to penetrate its opposition-controlled areas, where the UN estimates 275,000 people are trapped in a government siege.
In Geneva, an official with the UN's satellite imagery program said the new pictures from the rebel-held areas in the eastern half of the city show much destruction, presumably caused by airstrikes. UN and advocacy groups say hundreds of civilians, including at least 100 children, have died in the recent violence.
The United States and other Western countries say Moscow and Damascus are guilty of war crimes in deliberately targeting civilians, hospitals and aid deliveries for more than 250,000 people trapped under siege in Aleppo. The Syrian and Russian governments say they target only militants.
'Awful lot of new damage'
"Since the ceasefire has broken down, you certainly see an awful lot of new damage or plenty of new damage," said Lars Bromley, a research adviser at UNOSAT, the satellite operation of the UN.
The images, from Digital Globe and obtained by the UN agency through a licensing arrangement with the U.S. State Department, show mostly "formerly blasted and blown-up areas" during Syria's 5½-year war "experiencing a great deal of additional damage," said Bromley.
"To a certain extent you're looking at rubble being pushed around," he told reporters.
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The images primarily show before and after pictures from mid to late September showing destruction of buildings, including houses, after the shortlived ceasefire broke down. Several images are from northern Aleppo neighbourhoods, where government forces have also advanced against rebel fighters battling back.
"Since the ceasefire has broken down, you certainly see an awful lot of new damage or plenty of new damage," Bromley said. "Remember that the areas that are being bombed have been bombed almost continuously for quite some time. So seeing dramatic images of formerly pristine areas now turned to rubble — you don't see a lot of that."
Images have 'signature' look of airstrikes
One image, dated Saturday, shows the damage to a school or athletic facility in Aleppo's Owaija district.
Some of the images had a "signature" that airstrikes had done the damage — a large-size crater. Artillery or mortar fire creates a different pattern of destruction, Bromley said.
UNOSAT manager Einar Bjorgo added that places like Aleppo, which has long been the focus of Syria's bitter civil war, now in its sixth year, "are of course complex to analyze because you have a mix of all this."
The images could also provide significant insight after a controversial attack, such as a deadly attack on a UN-backed humanitarian aid convoy west of Aleppo last month.
"With our analysis, we determined that it was an airstrike," Bromley said. Convoy organizers had obtained necessary clearances from the government, rebels as well as the Americans and Russians, who operated aircraft in Syrian skies.
The top U.S. military officer, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate committee last week that he believes Russia bombed the convoy and said Syrian and Russian aircraft were in the area at the time. Russia and Syria have denied that they were responsible for the strike.
The UN officials also presented images from Iraq that showed plumes of black smoke from burning oil fields about 15 kilometers south of Mosul that were set aflame as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) retreated to the city.
Food supplies running thin
Half of the estimated 275,000 Syrians besieged in eastern Aleppo want to leave, the United Nations said on Wednesday, as food supplies are running thin and people are driven to burning plastic for fuel.
Food prices are rising and supplies are running out. Mothers were reportedly tying ropes around their stomachs or drinking large amounts of water to reduce the feeling of hunger and prioritise food for their children, the UN said.
"An assessment conducted in eastern Aleppo city concluded that 50 per cent of the inhabitants expressed willingness to leave if they can," the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in an update on the Aleppo situation. It did not say how many of the other 50 per cent were determined to stay.
Aid workers in eastern Aleppo have distributed food rations for 13,945 children under six years old, but a lack of cooking gas makes it difficult to cook what little food remains.
"Reports of civilians rummaging through the rubble of destroyed buildings to salvage any flammable material that can be used for cooking are common," the report said. "Poor-quality fuel, which is made from burning plastic, is available in limited amounts."
A litre of diesel fuel costs about 1,300 Syrian pounds or about $2.25, while a litre of petrol costs 7,000 Syrian pounds or about $13.70.
Poor access to water
Civilians are walking up to two kilometres to fetch water, which is available from boreholes, and the water situation across the city is "of grave concern," the report said. "Local authorities in charge of the Sulaiman Al-Halabi water station shut off the electrical power to the station to prevent extensive damage should hostilities impact the water station directly."
With files from Reuters