ALEPPO: The Syrian government offensive to recapture rebel-held parts of Aleppo sparked international alarm on Tuesday, with the UN saying nearly 16,000 people had fled the assault and more could follow.
France called for an immediate UN Security Council session on the fighting, which has seen the army capture a third of opposition-controlled east Aleppo in recent days.
The fighting has prompted an exodus of terrified civilians, many fleeing empty-handed into remaining rebel-held territory, or crossing into government-controlled western Aleppo or Kurdish districts.
UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien said the situation was “alarming and chilling”.
“Up to 16,000 people have been displaced, many into uncertain and precarious situations,” he said in a statement.
The figure does not include civilians who have fled to remaining rebel-held territory, and O’Brien warned it was “likely that thousands more will have no choice but to flee should fighting continue.” East Aleppo has been under government siege for more than four months, with international aid stocks exhausted and food supplies running low.
World Food Programme spokeswoman Bettina Luescher said civilians were enduring a “slow motion descent into hell.” Government forces have advanced swiftly in their two-week operation, capturing all of the city’s northeast in a major blow to the opposition.
The loss of their east Aleppo stronghold would be the worst defeat for rebels since Syria’s conflict first erupted more than five years ago. The opposition has steadily lost territory in recent months to government forces bolstered by a Russian military intervention that began in September 2015.
Moscow says it is not involved in the Aleppo offensive, but a Russian defence ministry spokesman said Syrian government forces had seized “nearly half the territory occupied by rebels in east Aleppo in recent years”.
“The careful and long-planned operations by the Syrian army have radically changed the situation over the past 24 hours,” General Igor Konachenkov said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed his government to set up mobile field hospitals around Aleppo, the Kremlin said.
A hospital with a capacity of up to 250 patients a day will be sent to the Aleppo region on Wednesday morning, according to Russian news agencies.
More than 250 civilians have been killed in the government’s assault on east Aleppo since Nov15, including nearly 30 children, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The monitor said at least 10 civilians were killed in a strike in the Bab al-Nayrab district on Tuesday and reported ongoing clashes in the Shaar and Tariq al-Bab neighbourhoods.
The Observatory said the civilian exodus continued on Tuesday from neighbourhoods now on the front line, and that “thousands” had fled to southern districts of Aleppo still held by rebels.