Aleppo: Reports of executions as Syrian army closes in

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(Photo: Syrian civil defense - Aleppo / Youtube)

(CNN) — The last of Aleppo’s rebel-held neighborhoods look set to fall to the Syrian regime, in a bloody end to the four-year battle for control of the key city.

Government forces are now in control of most of eastern Aleppo, which had been held by rebels for four years, and there are several reports of mass executions. Activists say anyone with links to the rebels who seized control of the enclave in 2012 is being hunted down.

“Every hour, butcheries are carried out,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding evidence to earlier reports from the United Nations of atrocities against a large number of civilians.

The UN said Tuesday it had received reports that 82 civilians had been shot on sight by pro-government forces on Monday, many killed in their homes.

A spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said he had received “deeply disturbing reports” that bodies were lying in the streets in the city — and that residents were unable to retrieve them in intense bombardment and out of “fear of being shot on sight.”

“In all, as of yesterday evening, we have received reports of pro-government forces killing at least 82 civilians in four different neighborhoods — Bustan al-Qasr, al-Ferdous, al-Kallaseh, and al-Saleheen,” the spokesman, Rupert Colville, said at a press conference.

He said 11 women and 13 children were among those killed. The Syrian government did not comment on the killings in state-run media.

Relatives of Free Syrian Army rebels, including women and children, were among those executed, activist Mohammad Basbous of the Aleppo Media Center told CNN Monday.

“Young people especially were executed,” said Ahmad Dbais, director of hospitals for the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, citing medical teams in Aleppo.

CNN has not been able to verify the execution reports.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon expressed alarm over “reports of atrocities against a large number of civilians, including women and children” in a statement.

“While stressing that the United Nations is not able to independently verify these reports, the secretary-general is conveying his grave concern to the relevant parties.”

The government already controls western Aleppo and its troops have taken three-quarters since entering the enclave by ground on November 27, backed by continual airstrikes.

Humanitarian volunteers in Aleppo have issued a desperate plea for help and safe passage for the estimated 100,000 civilians and rebels still trapped in the city’s east, now a wasteland of carnage and rubble.

Journalist: Residents forced from homes

Terrified residents slept in the streets after Syrian soldiers forced them from their homes, Aleppo resident and journalist Karam al Masri told CNN.

Amid the chaos, the self-styled Syria Civil Defense volunteer rescue group — also known as the White Helmets — was among groups pleading for safe passage out of Aleppo for their volunteers and civilians.

“The regime has been trying to kill us for five years,” the group said on Twitter. “Please don’t give them this chance.”

The bodies of the dead filled the streets as bombing continued, the group said.

“We hear children crying, we hear calls for help, but we just can’t do anything.”

One Twitter user, who goes by the user name “Mr_Alhamdo” and says he is an Aleppo resident, a “teacher, activist and reporter” inside the beleaguered city, posted a number of tweets bidding farewell to his followers.

“This is a call and might be the last call,” he said in one. “Save Aleppo people. Save my daughter and other children.”

Another described the situation inside the city as “doomsday.”

“It is the doomsday inside Aleppo. Bombs bombs are over the head of civilians. People are running running but don’t know where to go.”

Failed attempts at peace

The bloodshed comes as the international community has failed to find a political solution to the crisis in Aleppo, which has become the epicenter of Syria’s brutal five-year war.

Russia has used its veto power several times to shoot down resolutions in the UN Security Council, and an agreement has hinged on Russia and its fiercest critic, the US, finding a middle ground.

The two nations appeared to be on the brink of an agreement in Geneva Sunday over a cessation of hostilities involving the safe evacuation of rebels and civilians and the delivery of desperately needed aid.

But US State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday that the Russian side was putting off agreeing to the deal.

“Rather than accepting the US proposal for an immediate cessation, the Russians informed us that a cessation could not start for several days, meaning that the assault by the regime and its supporters on Aleppo would continue until any agreement would go into effect,” Kirby told a press briefing.

“Given the dire situation in Aleppo and the reports of continued attacks on civilians and infrastructure, this was just simply not acceptable,” he said.

“So we’re deeply frustrated, but we’re not surprised by this lack of Russian and regime commitment to what should be a humane solution to the current brutality. And we remain gravely worried for the safety and wellbeing of the people that are now remaining in east Aleppo.”

On Monday, Pope Francis reached out to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, asking him “to ensure that international humanitarian law is fully respected with regard to the protection of the civilians and access to humanitarian aid,” according to a statement from the Vatican.

The Pope made the appeal in appointing Cardinal Mario Zenari to the position of Apostolic Nuncio to Syria.

Rebel groups held eastern Aleppo for more than four years after the Arab Spring uprising and a Syrian regime siege on the area had essentially cut it off from the outside world, sparking a humanitarian crisis there.