Russia scorns Boris Johnson's 'hysteria' as bombs hammer Aleppo

Aid agency says Syrian city is being ‘flattened in front of our eyes’ as Moscow dismisses war crimes accusations

Moscow has responded forcefully to accusations by Britain’s foreign secretary about its involvement in an attack on an aid convoy in Syria last month, as intense violence in Aleppo’s besieged east continued.

The Russian defence ministry said Boris Johnson’s comments that Russia should be investigated for war crimes in Aleppo were “Russophobic hysteria”.

“There were no Russian planes in the area of the aid convoy to Aleppo. That is a fact,” the ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in a statement. Johnson’s speech was “a storm in a glass of muddy London water”, he added.

Airstrikes on the largest market in eastern Aleppo killed at least 15 people on Wednesday, with fears for others who were trapped. “So many people are still under the rubble,” said a doctor who works in the neighbourhood. “Even the man who I used to buy coffee from.”

Footage from the scene showed widespread destruction and buildings that had been reduced to twisted chunks of metal and rubble.

Making his frontbench debut as foreign secretary in a Commons debate on Tuesday, Johnson said “the mills of justice grind slowly, but they grind small” as he predicted those responsible for war crimes in Syria would eventually face charges before the international criminal court. He also took the unusual step of calling for demonstrations by anti-war protesters outside the Russian embassy in London.

Johnson’s remarks underline the degree to which relations between Russia and the west have deteriorated to levels not seen since the end of the cold war.

Residents of eastern Aleppo said air raids using powerful bunker-buster bombs, which resumed on Tuesday, had continued into the early hours of Wednesday morning.

“Unbelievable shelling and airstrikes have woken me up,” said Abdulkafi al-Hamdo, a teacher and activist in the city, in a message sent just after 5am local time.

Doctors said they had documented 34 dead and 216 injured on Tuesday alone, adding that the total number was likely to be higher as some families retrieved their dead from bombarded sites without taking them to local hospitals.

In the neighbourhood of Bustan al-Qasr, residents said bunker-buster bombs had been deployed with devastating power. Doctors at a nearby hospital shared images of the dead and wounded from the area, including children.

One doctor described the bombing on Tuesday as akin to “resurrection day”.

“There appears to be a determination to continue the war in Syria and no hope for a ceasefire,” he said. “The result is more destruction and the death of innocents.”

Another doctor said: “Me and my daughter [were] trying to go home from the school. The warplanes are bombing and breaking the sound barrier. Both of us are afraid and praying. Everyone in Aleppo lives this life.”

The resumption of intensive airstrikes by Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its Russian allies followed several days of relative calm in which the government reiterated its demands for rebels in the eastern districts of Syria’s commercial capital to lay down their arms and abandon the city, and for civilians to flee to the regime-held western half.

The see-saw of destruction appears aimed at sowing division among members of the opposition and civilians, about 250,000, still living in the area, pressuring them with the prospect of prolonged suffering to abandon their redoubt.

The strategy has worked in other areas of Syria, with rebels in Homs and the suburbs of Damascus surrendering after years of encirclement and siege that have caused untold civilian deaths.

Humanitarian agencies are increasingly alarmed at the devastation in Aleppo. The charity Médecins Sans Frontières said just 11 ambulances and 35 doctors were left in the city to serve the quarter of a million people living under siege and airstrikes. The organisation said hospitals had been hit at least 23 times since the siege of Aleppo began in July.

“They have been abandoned by the world. The whole world is witnessing the city being destroyed, but nobody is doing anything to stop it,” said Carlos Francisco, the head of MSF’s mission in Syria. “We are talking about a city exhausted by five years of war, which has received no aid since July, when the siege began – a city that is being devastated, flattened, in front of our eyes.”

On Tuesday Johnson appeared to reject calls for a no-fly zone over areas of Syria, saying: “We cannot commit to a no-fly zone unless we are prepared to confront and perhaps shoot down planes or helicopters that violate that zone. We need to think very carefully about the consequences.”

But, he added, he was sympathetic to those who made the call, and wanted to work through the options with Britain’s allies.

The Foreign Office is known to be preparing for a more assertive Syrian policy if Hillary Clinton becomes the US president in January, but senior UN figures have warned that eastern Aleppo is likely to have fallen to forces loyal to Assad by then.


Kareem Shaheen in Beirut and Patrick Wintour

The GuardianTramp

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