UN worries showdown in Aleppo could be imminent

The Red Cross has pulled some of its foreign staff from Damascus out of concern for the safety of its workers.

Geneva: A showdown between rebels and government troops in Syria`s largest city, Aleppo, is imminent, the UN`s human rights office said on Friday, as the Red Cross pulled some of its foreign staff from Damascus out of concern for the safety of its workers.

Syrian rebels have made a run on the country`s two biggest cities, Aleppo and Damascus, since last week. Regime forces have responded with overwhelming firepower, ushering in some of the most serious violence the cities have seen in 17 months of conflict.

Rebels have been locked in fierce fighting with government troops in Aleppo for seven days and they are bracing for an attack amid reports that the regime is massing reinforcements to retake the embattled city of three million.

Mohammed Saeed, an Aleppo-based activist, said helicopters were firing with heavy machine-guns on rebel-held areas east and west of the city today. He added that Army reinforcements arrived in the city yesterday and a major attack is expected any time.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said unconfirmed reports are coming out of the capital, Damascus, of extra-judicial killings and shootings of civilians during fighting in the city`s suburbs. Pillay said the report "bodes ill for the people of that city (Aleppo)”.

Pillay said she believes President Bashar Assad`s regime and opposition forces are both committing crimes against humanity and war crimes.

"And it goes without saying, that the increasing use of heavy weapons, tanks, attack helicopters and reportedly even jet fighters in urban areas has already caused many civilian casualties and is putting many more at grave risk," she said in a statement read aloud to reporters by her spokesman Rupert Colville.

Pillay said there is a pattern of government forces trying to clear areas that it says are occupied by opposition forces. There has been an accompanying rise in the number of reports of opposition fighters torturing or executing prisoners, she said.

A senior UN diplomat close to the mediation effort of international envoy Kofi Annan said they are "watching the situation in Aleppo with great concern”.

"The ground is shifting. We use words like `It`s fluid` — and it certainly is ... It has been a roller-coaster ride," the diplomat said, while speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the negotiations among world powers on the UN Security Council. "While we are trying to apportion blame (for the diplomatic standoff), people are dying. Kids are being slaughtered."

The International Committee of the Red Cross today said it is temporarily moving some of its foreign staff from Damascus to neighbouring Lebanon.

A Red Cross spokesman in Geneva, Hicham Hassan, said the move was prompted by security concerns but that a core team of about 50 staff would remain.


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