Civilians Bear Brunt of Horrific Violence as Battle for Aleppo Rages

Destroyed homes of the Kayali family in the Sakhur district of Aleppo, ruined by an airstrike on August 6, 2012.
Press Release
August 22, 2012

Civilians Bear Brunt of Horrific Violence as Battle for Aleppo Rages

August Fact-Finding Mission Corroborates Organization's Satellite Imagery; Documents Indiscriminate Slaughter of Children, Families

Contact: Alex Edwards, aedwards@aiusa.org, 202-675-8761

(Washington, D.C.) -- Civilians are enduring a horrific level of violence in the battle between Syrian government forces and opposition fighters for control of Aleppo – the country's largest city and commercial capital, Amnesty International said today in a new briefing on Syria.

The 11-page briefing (and accompanying video footage), is based on first-hand field investigations by Amnesty International during the first half of August. The research documents the Syrian government forces' increasingly frequent air and artillery strikes against residential areas, resulting in indiscriminate attacks which seriously endanger civilians.

"The use of imprecise weapons, such as unguided bombs, artillery shells and mortars by government forces has dramatically increased the danger for civilians," said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International's senior crisis response advisor, who recently returned from Aleppo and authored the briefing.

During a 10-day visit to the city, Amnesty International investigated some 30 attacks in which scores of civilians not involved in hostilities, many of them children, were killed or injured in their homes, while in line for bread and even in the places of shelter. Attacks often failed to distinguish between opposition fighters and civilian residents and appeared to be randomly directed at neighborhoods from where opposition fighters operate or are based.

Among the victims of such attacks were 10 members of the Kayali family, seven of them children, who were killed when their homes were reduced to rubble by two air strikes in the afternoon of August 6.

"Civilians face a daily barrage of air and artillery strikes by government forces in different parts of the city," said Rovera. "For many, there is simply nowhere safe; families constantly live under fear of the next attack."

The briefing documents how civilians have been killed and injured while waiting in bread lines that form outside bakeries day and night, due to the current shortage in Aleppo. At 3 a.m. on August 12, a 13-year-old girl, Kifa' Samra, and her 11-year-old brother, Zakarya, were killed along with their neighbor, a mother of 11, while waiting in a line near their home.

The inherent dangers associated with urban warfare are compounded by a manifest disregard for the safety of civilians. As civilian casualties continue to mount, it is imperative that all parties – government forces and opposition fighters alike – comply with international humanitarian law, which requires that they take all feasible precautions to spare civilians.

While the overwhelming majority of victims were killed in air strikes and artillery attacks by government forces, in some cases the source of the attack could not be established. Opposition fighters, while mostly fighting with short-range light weapons, have at times also used imprecise or indiscriminate weapons (such as mortars and home-made rockets) that equally pose a danger to civilians.

As the conflict continues, there are growing concerns about increased abuses, including unlawful killings and ill-treatment of captives, by opposition fighters belonging to a plethora of armed opposition groups, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Amnesty International has repeatedly called on the FSA leadership to take steps to put an immediate end to such abuses and to ensure that these and any other killings of captives be investigated impartially.

"It is shameful that the international community remains divided over Syria, disregarding the body of evidence of the scale and the gravity of the human rights abuses and effectively looking the other way as civilians bear the brunt," said Rovera.

A further deeply disturbing development highlighted in the briefing is the sharp increase in extrajudicial and summary executions of civilians not involved in the conflict. Bodies of mostly young men, usually handcuffed and shot in the head, have been frequently discovered dumped near the headquarters of the Air Force Intelligence, which is under complete control of government forces.

Evidence collected in the mission corroborates Amnesty International's recent analysis of satellite images from Aleppo and the surrounding areas, which document the increased use of heavy weaponry, including near residential areas, and raised urgent concerns over the impending assault on the suffering city.

"Amnesty International's most recent fact-finding mission in Aleppo has confirmed our distressing concerns raised through satellite imagery," said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International USA. "There is no longer any question: Syria's most populous city has been turned into a battlefield, rendering Aleppo's civilian residents disposable pawns in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse."

The human rights organization will continue to monitor the violence in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria, including through the use of satellite technology, to document human rights abuses and atrocities.

"We are sending a strong message to both sides in the fighting: Any attacks against civilians will be clearly documented – whether from above or bearing witness on the ground – and those responsible will be held to account," added Nossel.

Amnesty International has repeatedly called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC). A bill currently in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.Res.687), introduced by Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) and Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), and which has bipartisan support, calls on the ICC to investigate human rights abuses in Syria and bring those accountable to justice.

"It is time that members of Congress call for justice and accountability in Syria," concluded Nossel. "H.Res. 687 is a step in the right direction – one that Congress should put its full weight behind."

Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 3 million supporters, activists and volunteers in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public, and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied.

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