Saturday, October 15, 2016

Vicar of Aleppo says rebel rockets against Christian quarter hit school, killing four children

This morning some "rockets launched from the eastern sector" of Aleppo landed in "the predominantly Christian district of Sulaymaniyah" in the west and "hit a school, killing at least four children,” said Mgr Georges Abou Khazen, vicar apostolic to Aleppo of the Latins, who spoke with AsiaNews, evidence of the spiral of violence and terror that is engulfing northern Syria’s metropolis.
"We do not want all these deaths, this destruction,” the prelate said, “yet the tragedy continues and involves both sides of the city . . . Everyone here is suffering. Families in both east and west continue to count and mourn their dead."

For weeks, Syria’s old economic capital has been split between a government-controlled western section with more than a million people, and a rebel-held eastern section with 250,000 residents that is the main battleground of the Syrian conflict. Yet, the media continue to talk about and denounce only the violence in east Aleppo.

Yesterday during his general audience, Francis renewed his appeal for peace in all of Syria, which he had called a "beloved and troubled" land in his statement announcing the appointment of Apostolic Nuncio Mgr Mario Zenari to the post of cardinal.

In asking for an urgent ceasefire to alleviate the suffering of the city’s residents, the pontiff underlined and reiterated his “closeness to all the victims of the inhuman conflict in Syria”.

The pope called for a truce in the fighting, at least “for the time necessary to evacuate the civilians, especially children, who are still trapped by the cruel bombings”. 

Yet, less than 24 hours after the pope’s appeal, Aleppo weeps again for new victims among children.

"It's always the same old story,” Mgr Abou Khazen said, “with regional and international powers not working for peace. The pope’s words are very important because they make us feel his closeness but unfortunately these appeals fall on deaf ears.”

“The players are not interested in what is happening to people even though now more than ever a truce is needed to alleviate the suffering and bring some aid and comfort."

For the apostolic vicar, a truce would be a "first step" towards gradual progression "on the path of peace to relieve suffering and fears."

"Aleppo is now a living hell,” the prelate added. It is a “hell that touches everyone, east and west, full of death and destruction, refugees and lack of electricity and water, families who touch pain with their hands on a daily basis".

Such suffering "cannot be described with words," but it has not led to the loss of "hope for a solution to the conflict, because in the end, some agreement will be reached, even though selfishness now prevails."

The alternative to peace, warns the apostolic vicar, is a war that from the local level "will expand to the regional and global level."

In addition to bombs, rumours are all over the place, with some saying that the United States and Saudi Arabia "are negotiating to facilitate the safe escape of Islamic State jihadists from Mosul to Syrian territory".

When the Americans threatened to bomb on their own, "we feared the worst . . . This would be a terrifying prospect for everyone."

Drawing a parallel with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, this could trigger a nuclear conflict on a global scale. "Our hope is that today, like then, the logic of peace will prevail,” the vicar said. “We reached the highest point of the crisis; now we hope in the sense of responsibility of all the players involved."

Meanwhile, there are other flashpoints. "The situation in Homs is calmer," but fighting continues "around Hama, in some suburbs of Damascus and other parts of the country."

Even though "many rebel groups, mainly Syrian, are willing to put down their weapons and sign an agreement", interventions by larger groups, above all extremists and jihadists, "nips in the bud such attempts".

Since a fragile truce was broken after just one week in September, the conflict has escalated. 

In five years, more than 300,000 people (430,000 according to some sources) have died and millions have become refugees. According to some, the last few hours saw the most intense bombardments in a while. 

Last week Russia vetoed a UN Security Council draft resolution proposed by France, calling for a stop in the air raids in Aleppo. This decision sparked a diplomatic row between Moscow and Paris, ending with the decision of Russian President Vladimir Putin to "postpone" his visit to his French counterpart François Hollande.

Tensions have also mounted between Moscow and London after British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson called for demonstrations in front of the Russian Embassy in the United Kingdom against the bombing in Aleppo. Moscow reacted by describing Johnson’s remarks as "shameful" and “Russophobic hysteria".

However, Washington and Moscow are even more at odds as the two superpowers are on opposing sides in the Syrian war. The White House is close to the (so-called) moderate opposition – but also to extremist groups – whilst the Kremlin is the main backer of the Damascus government.

To avert further escalation in the Syrian conflict, Moscow – which has been accused of "war crimes" in Syria – and Washington are set to meet again on 15 October in Lausanne, Switzerland, in a multilateral meeting.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are expected to attend.

The two spoke by telephone in recent days, and are expected to be joined in Lausanne by counterparts from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Neither side has confirmed an invitation to Iran, a key player in the conflict and an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The United Nations said that Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura has been invited to the talks but a spokesman said he did not know if he would attend.

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