(New York) – Activists and residents from opposition-controlled parts of Aleppo described fierce shelling and aerial bombardment by forces affiliated with the Syrian government as a short-lived ceasefire announced on December 13, 2016, broke down on December 14, Human Rights Watch said. Attacks on government-controlled parts of the city also killed and injured civilians. During recent fighting in the city, Human Rights Watch had documented deliberate targeting of civilians by government forces and indiscriminate attacks by all sides.

All parties to the battle for Aleppo, but in particular those affiliated with the Syrian authorities, should halt unlawful attacks and allow the safe evacuation of civilians and unimpeded access of aid.

A still image from a video of bomb damaged eastern Aleppo, Syria. Video released on December 13, 2016. 

“The forces battling for control over Aleppo are once again plunging its civilian residents into hell,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Civilians in eastern Aleppo who had a glimmer of hope that the attacks would stop and that aid would finally reach them are instead trapped in a new brutal air and ground attack.”

Residents in opposition-controlled parts of Aleppo reported that artillery shelling started hitting the area about 2 a.m. and that aircraft later attacks began by 10 a.m.

Adeeb Mansour, a local journalist who was in al-Mashhad neighborhood, said that the shelling was so intense that many people could not move about the city.

“There were at least six airstrike attacks on al-Mashhad neighborhood,” he told Human Rights Watch. “People aren’t even able to bury the dead because the attacks are so fierce. There are bodies on the ground and we don’t even know if they are wounded or dead.”

The intensity of the attacks made it difficult to assess how many civilians were killed and injured in the new attacks, local residents said.

“The Civil Defense has not been able to do its job properly today because the attacks are so bad,” said Ibrahim Hilal, the Aleppo chief for the group Syria Civil Defense. “Every time we try to approach the victims, pro-government militias attack us with sniper fire.”

Local residents also said that they heard sounds identified with cluster munition attacks and shared their audio recordings with Human Rights Watch. The recordings contained dozens of small explosions in the course of a few seconds, a signature sound pattern for a cluster munition attack. Hilal provided Human Rights Watch with the names of five civilians who were killed in an attack in the Salahdin neighborhood.

In a deal announced on December 13, Russia and armed opposition groups said that fighters, and civilians, would be allowed to leave opposition-controlled parts of Aleppo starting early in the morning on December 14.

Myassara al-Shami, another local journalist, said that ambulance drivers told him that civilians were turned back at checkpoints late on the night of December 13: “Medics prepared injured people to leave the city late Tuesday night but the [Iranian-backed] Nujaba militia turned them back from the checkpoints.”

Local residents said that nobody had been able to leave on December 14. Activists said that under the ceasefire the most severely injured people were to leave the city first, but when ambulances carrying the injured approached an Iranian-backed pro-Syrian government checkpoint in the morning, they were met with gunfire and had to turn back.

The United Nations Commission of Inquiry said on December 14 that armed opposition groups including Ahrar al-Sham and Fath al-Sham were stopping civilians from leaving the city and embedding fighters among civilians.

Ground forces affiliated with the Syrian government have in recent weeks retaken large parts of Aleppo that had been controlled by armed opposition groups. Intense aerial bombardment preceded and accompanied the ground offensive. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a Syrian organization that documents human rights violations inside Syria, the Syrian-Russian military campaign killed 383 civilians in eastern Aleppo, including 58 children, between November 15 and December 9.

A Human Rights Watch investigation of the aerial bombardment campaign of Aleppo in September and October found that the Russian-Syrian coalition had committed war crimes through targeted attacks on civilians or indiscriminate attacks that did not distinguish between civilians and fighters.

Armed opposition groups have also conducted indiscriminate attacks, Human Rights Watch said, firing rockets and mortars into residential areas of government-controlled Aleppo that have killed dozens if not hundreds of civilians. On December 14, Syria’s state news agency SANA reported that three people had been killed and dozens injured after rockets fell on a number of neighborhoods including al-Sukkari, Salheen, and al-Ferdous. One doctor Human Rights Watch reached in western Aleppo said that mortars and rockets from opposition forces had killed 380 civilians, including 104 children, there in September, October, and November, based on the western Aleppo health directorate’s records.

All warring parties are prohibited under international law from conducting attacks that deliberately target civilians, that do not distinguish between civilians and combatants, or that cause civilian loss disproportionate to the expected military gain. Anyone who plans, orders, or carries out unlawful attacks with criminal intent, including as a matter of command responsibility, is subject to prosecution for war crimes. Violations by one party do not justify violations by another.

In light of Russia’s and China’s repeated use of the veto to block action to protect civilians in Syria, members of the UN Security Council should immediately request an emergency special session of the General Assembly, a decision that would require the support of at least nine members of the Security Council and could not be vetoed. Building on the resolution it adopted last week with an overwhelming majority of 122 members, the General Assembly, once convened in an emergency special session, should reiterate its demand for an end to unlawful attacks in Syria. If the Security Council remains incapable of initiating an emergency special session, members of the General Assembly should call one themselves.

Syrian government authorities and armed opposition groups should immediately facilitate aid deliveries to opposition-controlled parts of Aleppo, Human Rights Watch said. The UN General Assembly should urgently mandate a UN monitoring team to travel to areas that government forces recaptured from armed opposition groups to deter future abuses, document crimes that have been committed, and visit detention sites.

“Yesterday’s glimmer of hope was violently extinguished today,” Fakih said. “There is no time to lose for the General Assembly to act.”