BEIRUT – Syrian residents in opposition-held eastern part of the city of Aleppo woke up to a fresh wave of airstrikes on Friday amid intense clashes between government forces and rebels — part of a devastating military campaign by Syria and Russia that the opposition says has killed dozens of people in the past week.
President Bashar Assad, meanwhile, expressed his intention to recapture the northern city's rebel-held eastern neighborhoods, saying that a military victory in Aleppo would provide the Syrian army with a "springboard" from which to liberate other areas of the country.
"You have to keep cleaning this area and to push the terrorists to Turkey to go back to where they came from, or to kill them," Assad said in an interview with a Russian media outlet, Komsomolskaya Pravda, released on Thursday.
"There's no other option," he added.
Syrian government forces have encircled the eastern half of Aleppo, besieging tens of thousands of people and pounding the territory with airstrikes on daily basis. The siege and deadly bombardment has caused an international outcry with a number of countries and groups accusing Syria and Russia of war crimes in connection with attacks on medical facilities and aid convoys.
President Barack Obama planned to convene his National Security Council for a highly anticipated meeting about Syria on Friday. Having cut off diplomatic talks with Russia after a cease-fire in Syria failed, the Obama administration has been at a loss to find a new viable strategy to stem the violence even as the bloodshed in Aleppo and elsewhere continues to mount.
The violence also gives additional urgency to the upcoming meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on efforts to find a peace deal in Syria in Switzerland on Saturday. It will be the first face-to-face contact between the two men since Washington broke off bilateral diplomatic contact with Moscow earlier this month.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Friday reported dozens of overnight airstrikes on eastern Aleppo. It added that clashes are taking place on the northern and southern edges of the city.
The Aleppo Media Center, an activist collective, said the airstrikes killed and wounded a number of people, with some buried under the debris.
The Observatory said Wednesday that at least 358 civilians have been killed in eastern Aleppo since the U.S. and Russian-brokered truce collapsed in September. The U.N. says over 100 children have been killed in the campaign, which has also included a limited ground offensive.
Doctors Without Borders said three weeks of airstrikes on eastern Aleppo have killed 114 children and wounded 320 others. The international charity, also known by its French acronym MSF, said hospitals are reporting that because patients struggle to access medical facilities, some people with easily treatable wounds develop complications or reach the facilities too late.
"The international community has become immune to images of dead children being recovered from the rubble of buildings ravaged by bombs. This has become a daily occurrence," said Carlos Francisco, MSF Head of Mission for Syria. "All sorts of civilian spaces are being hit; schools are being damaged. The reality is that children die every day in what appears to be a 'kill box'."
The U.N. children's agency said in a statement that rebel shelling of a government neighborhood in Aleppo on Thursday killed four children and wounded three who were on their way to school.
"UNICEF calls on all parties to the conflict to protect civilians and stop attacks on civilian infrastructure, including schools and education facilities, in accordance with their obligations under international humanitarian law," the statement said. "Children should be protected at all times".
In the town of Azaz, north of Aleppo near the Turkish border, amateur videos released on Friday show the aftermath of a blast that targeted rebels and killed at least 17 people.
In one of the videos, a man is seen weeping as he screams the name of a missing man, Mohammed. The video also shows a victim being carried away in a black body bag. Another video shows several bodies lying on a pavement outside what appears to be a hospital. The videos appear genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting of the events depicted.
Near the capital of Damascus, government forces captured the rebel-held area of Deir Khabiyeh, according to state media and the Observatory.