Mass graves and booby traps as Russians, Syrians sweep Aleppo – Rebels accused of executing 21 civilians

An Iraqi woman displaced from Mosul and her 2 children sit on top of an old refrigerator at a gathering point for displaced people, in Bartella, around 30 km (19 miles), from Mosul, Iraq on Dec 26. (AP)

BEIRUT, Dec 26, (Agencies): Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Monday that its troops had found mass graves in Syria’s Aleppo with bodies showing signs of torture and mutilation. Dozens of bodies have been uncovered, according to Ministry spokesman Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov. He said some bore gunshot wounds. While the Syrian war is now largely fought with mortars, tanks, and air power, death has come at close quarters as well. Human rights observers and the media have recorded numerous examples of massacres and organized torture, perpetrated by the government, opposition, and the Islamic State group. The Russian Air Force has helped Syrian President Bashar Assad and its allies to capture Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, after weeks of a siege. Russia has since dispatched military police to the city. Konashenkov also accused rebels, who controlled eastern Aleppo before they were pushed out earlier this month, of laying multiple booby traps and mines across town, endangering the civilian population. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which gathers information on the conflict through local contacts, said on Sunday that at least 63 Syrian soldiers and militiamen had been killed by such booby traps in east Aleppo since the government took control of it from rebels last Thursday. The Observatory said the victims were a mix of demining personnel and soldiers or militiamen looting the districts.

Signs
As Russian and Syrian forces secured and consolidated eastern Aleppo, Syrian president Bashar Assad was showing signs of increasing confidence in his position. On Sunday, Assad visited a Christian orphanage near the capital Damascus to mark Christmas. Photographs posted on the Syrian presidency’s Facebook page showed Assad along with his wife, Asma, standing with nuns and orphans in the Damascus suburb of Sednaya. In the northern city of Aleppo, Christians celebrated Christmas for the first time in four years with the country’s largest city now under full control of government forces.

The rebel withdrawal from east Aleppo last week marked Assad’s biggest victory since Syria’s crisis began in 2011. Christians, one of the largest religious minorities at about 10 percent of Syria’s pre-war 23 million-strong population, have tried to stay on the sidelines of the conflict. However, the opposition’s increasingly outspoken Islamism has kept many leaning toward Assad’s government. Meanwhile, Syrian authorities have accused rebel fighters of executing 21 civilians, including women and children, at close range as they quit second city Aleppo last week, state media reported. The bodies were found in two neighbourhoods in east Aleppo, state news agency SANA said late Sunday. The head of Aleppo’s forensic unit Zaher Hajjo told SANA that “21 corpses of civilian victims, including five children and four women, killed by terrorist groups” were examined.

“The bodies were found in prisons run by the terrorist groups in Sukkari and al-Kalasseh, and they were found to have been executed by gunshot at very close range,” Hajjo was quoted as saying. Under a landmark deal brokered by regime ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey, 35,000 rebels and civilians left the former opposition stronghold of east Aleppo last week. Days before the evacuations began, the UN said it had received credible reports of at least 82 civilians, including 11 women and 13 children, being executed by pro-government forces in Aleppo.

On Monday, the Russian defence ministry said “dozens of Syrians” were summarily executed in east Aleppo by rebels. “Mass graves containing dozens of Syrians who were summarily executed and subjected to savage torture have been discovered,” spokesman Igor Konachenkov said, according to Russian agencies. He said most had been killed by gunshot wounds to the head and many bodies “were not whole,” and that thorough investigations would force opposition backers in the West to “recognise their responsibility for the cruelty” of rebels. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that bodies had been found in east Aleppo’s streets, but could not specify how they had been killed. World powers have been fiercely divided over Syria’s conflict since it first erupted in March 2011, with Russia firmly backing Assad and Gulf powers and much of the West supporting the opposition. The high-profile battle for Aleppo, in particular, has sparked accusations by Western powers that Russia and the government were committing war crimes. Christians in Aleppo celebrated under a giant Christmas tree lit up for the first time in five years, hailing what many described as the return of peace to a city that came back under full government control last week. The fall of rebel-held east Aleppo was the biggest victory of Syria’s nearly six-year-old civil war for supporters of President Bashar al-Assad, and many in pro-government parts of the city have been jubilant.

However, the rebel defeat has also brought severe hardship on civilians who fled from insurgent-held areas, thousands of whom have been forced to camp in wilderness under the snow. Aid groups say many are in peril and children have died from exposure to severe winter weather. In the war ravaged St. Elias Cathedral located on what was long the frontline in Aleppo’s historic Old City, priests prayed for peace at the first Christmas Eve Mass for five years, attended by dozens of worshippers, including some Russian officers. “The festive atmosphere is great. It’s a new birth for Jesus Christ and a new birth for the city of Aleppo,” said George Bakhash, a Christian community leader. He said the numbers attending mass across the city had surged, now that worshippers no longer feared missiles from rebel-held areas. Many Syrian Christians supported the government in the civil war, viewing Assad, a member of a Shi’itederived minority sect, as a protector against rebel fighters mainly drawn from Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority.

Undamaged
In the comparatively undamaged parts of the city that had long been held by the government, restaurants were thronged by Christians late into the night. Hundreds of people danced and celebrated in the Azizya neighbourhood, where the public Christmas tree had gone unlit since rebels took the eastern half of the city in 2012. Giant posters depicted Assad and his Christian ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin. In live footage shown on state television, a woman identified as the mother of slain Syrian soldier carried her son’s picture alongside an image of the Virgin Mary. “I am sure his soul is in peace now because Aleppo has been liberated,” she said. Although some Christians stayed on the sidelines of the civil war, many saw the rise of Islamic State and other Sunni Muslim insurgent groups as a threat to the very existence of their communities, some as old as the bible. The Christian population of Aleppo has shrunk since the start of the conflict to around 50,000 from 250,000 according to Bakhash. Outside the city, rebels still hold at least 40 percent of Aleppo province, and rebels have still fired sporadic shells from the fringes of the city to the south. Russian jets resumed heavy strikes on rebel-held rural areas of Aleppo province after a pause during a ceasefire to complete the evacuation of rebels from the city. A bombing raid in the rebel-held town of Atareb in western Aleppo countryside killed at least seven refugees who had fled from the city under the evacuation deal, a local resident said. Some people who fled east Aleppo earlier in the war have begun returning to inspect homes in neighbourhoods reduced to rubble by years of aerial bombing, which intensified last year when Russia joined the war. The army and pro-government militias are still combing parts of east Aleppo. Rebels accuse the pro-government forces of carrying out summary executions of scores of youths who stayed behind, and say looting has been rampant. The government denies its forces have executed prisoners or looted homes. Thousands of people who were bussed out of Aleppo’s rebel-held eastern districts as they fell to government forces have ended up in makeshift camps exposed to severe winter weather. Many left everything behind as they fled under the evacuation deal, under which only mostly elderly people stayed. “We brought a few belongings just to wear.. We lost everything,” Omar Sarout, 55, told Reuters by internet message from a makeshift camp for more than 700 people, mostly women and children, run by Turkish and Gulf charities. Yousef Hanbali, a carpenter who fled Aleppo for a makeshift camp in Idlib province, said his family hoped to reach Turkey to find work. “We need money. We left without anything,” he said.

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