The death toll from a 10-day Syrian regime air offensive on Aleppo rebels passed 400 on Wednesday, as Pope Francis called on Christmas Day for aid access to the war-torn country.
However, even as the EU and Arab League condemned the campaign in Syria’s second city, a Russian company signed a major energy exploration deal with the Damascus government.
Aleppo has been divided into regime and rebel-held enclaves since a massive opposition offensive in the northern city in July last year. The regime has been bombarding the rebel-held areas using TNT-packed barrels since Dec. 15, in an offensive the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said has left 410 people dead, including 117 children, as of Tuesday night. Also among those killed were 34 women, 30 rebel fighters and nine jihadists.
The Britain-based Observatory, which uses a network of contacts inside Syria to track the conflict, said the air force pressed the assault into an 11th day on Wednesday.
It said later that mortar fire killed six people and wounded 15 in regime-controlled neighborhoods of Aleppo, including Midan and Sulamaniyeh.
Human Rights Watch has labeled as “unlawful” the relentless aerial campaign by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, especially the use of the massively destructive barrel bombs in civilian areas. The United States has also condemned the assault, and on Wednesday the Arab League and the EU joined the chorus of criticism.
“The High Representative [for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton] is deeply concerned with reports of an escalating bombing campaign,” the EU said. “She condemns the unabated use of air strikes by the Syrian government on civilian areas.”
Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi called on “the Syrian army to stop the air bombings” of Aleppo, condemning the killing of “hundreds of innocent civilians.” Arabi also called on the UN Security Council “to take responsibility” to end the conflict.
The opposition National Coalition has said it will boycott a peace conference slated for January if the Aleppo bombing does not cease.
A security source in Damascus has defended the campaign as necessary to “save Aleppo.”
“We do not target any area unless we are 100 percent sure that the ones there are terrorists,” the source said, using the regime term for rebels. “The bodies you see on television are the bodies of terrorists and mercenaries, most of whom traveled into Syria from abroad.”
Syria hit back at the US on Tuesday, describing it as a “one-eyed pirate” for condemning the assault but “ignoring the crimes committed by the terrorists.”
In his first Christmas address, Pope Francis urged peace in Syria, saying “too many lives have been shattered ... fueling hatred and vengeance.”
“Let us continue to ask the Lord to spare the beloved Syrian people further suffering, and to enable the parties in conflict to put an end to all violence and guarantee access to humanitarian aid,” he said.
In a landmark deal on Wednesday, the Syrian government and rebel forces in a besieged town near Damascus agreed on a truce to allow much-needed aid supplies to residents trapped in the Moadamiyet al-Sham area.
“A truce came into force on Wednesday, and the people have accepted as a gesture of goodwill to fly the regime flag over the town’s water towers,” Abu Malek of the town’s opposition council said.