Syrian government forces must clear Aleppo of Islamist militants still controlling the eastern part of the embattled city as this is the only way to protect civilians there, President Bashar Assad has said.
"How can you protect them [civilians] while they are under the control of terrorists? They've been killed by them, and they've been controlled fully by the terrorists,” Assad told Swiss broadcaster SRF in a 20-minute “censorship-free” interview on Tuesday.
“Is it our role to sit aside and watch if that's how we can protect the Syrian people? We need to attack the terrorists. That's self-evident," the Syrian leader said, responding to a question from SRF reporter Sandro Brotz, who confronted him with the widely-shared photo of an ash-covered child allegedly pulled from the rubble in Aleppo.
The interview came as Syrian government forces attempt to retake eastern Aleppo, currently held by Al-Nusra Front militants. Up to 250,000 civilians are believed to be in the area, without access to food, water and sanitation, while aid agencies warn of a looming humanitarian disaster.
Assad added that the government’s steps to liberate the city from Islamists falls completely within Syrian law.
“That's our mission, according to the constitution, according to the law, that we have to protect people, that we have to get rid of those terrorists from Aleppo. This is where we can protect the civilians," he said.
Earlier, Russia’s envoy to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said that the ‘moderate’ opposition forces fighting alongside Al-Nusra Front in eastern Aleppo must distance themselves from the Islamists. If they can do that, Al-Nusra militants will then be offered an opportunity to retreat from the city or face defeat.
Aleppo, once a large city with booming businesses and tourism, is now among the worst-hit places in war-torn Syria. Supported by Russian aircraft, government forces liberated western Aleppo earlier this year, but the battle for this important city is far from over.
Whereas some Western countries publicly accuse Damascus and Moscow of ‘war crimes’ in Aleppo, the Syrian government suspects that Islamists have deliberately banned civilians from leaving the eastern part of the city, effectively using them as human shields.
In the city’s western half, the situation is no better. People living close to the frontline are under indiscriminate rocket and mortar fire, with shells severely injuring children and adults.
Earlier this month, RT visited several Aleppo hospitals which remain overcrowded but lack medical personnel and adequate medicine. Some locals, including children, have lost their arms and legs in the shelling or have had them amputated, while efficient painkillers are not available to everyone.
On Tuesday, the Russian and Syrian Air Forces said they will cease operations for 48 hours to let civilians pass through the division line safely, and also pave the way for aid deliveries. This did not change the situation on the ground much, however, RT’s Murad Gazdiev reported from Aleppo hours after the statement was made.
“Syrian and Russian jets have been absent from Aleppo skies for many hours now. But there has been no lull in the fighting – fighting continues, shelling continues – of rebel-held areas, of government-held areas. The death toll is climbing every day; it’s big,” he said.
Later on the same day, two Belgian F-16s reportedly delivered an airstrike on the village of Hassadjek in Aleppo province, killing at least six people and injuring four, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.
On Wednesday, Belgian Defense Minister Steven Vandeput rejected the claim, saying its fighter jets were not operating in the area.