Missiles rained down on rebel-held areas of Aleppo in Syria yesterday, causing widespread destruction that overwhelmed rescue teams, as the army prepared a ground offensive to retake the city.
The intensity of the bombardment, which also included artillery barrages and barrel bombings by helicopters, brought new misery to the estimated 250 000 civilians trapped under siege by the army.
The escalation came after US secretary of state John Kerry failed to reach agreement with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on terms to salvage a failed ceasefire, although he said he was ready to try again.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said Russian warplanes were participating in the raids alongside regime aircraft. An AFP journalist in rebel-held east Aleppo reported relentless sorties and barrages through the night and morning.
Entire apartment blocks were flattened, overwhelming rescue teams from the White Helmets civil defence organisation.
In the Al-Kalasseh district, three buildings were levelled by a single strike and rescue workers were trying frantically to reach survivors using a single bulldozer and their bare hands.
The White Helmets’ headquarters building in the Ansari district was badly damaged, along with an ambulance and a fire engine. A second centre operated by the group was also hit.
The Observatory said at least 10 people had been killed in the strikes, two of them children, but more dead were feared buried under the rubble.
The bombardment came a day after the Syrian army announced an offensive to recapture east Aleppo, which has been held by the rebels since mid-2012 but has been surrounded by government forces since July.
The army urged civilians to distance themselves from “the positions of terrorist groups” and pledged that fleeing residents would not be detained.
A high-ranking military source confirmed that the bombardment was in preparation for a ground assault.
“We have begun reconnaissance, aerial and artillery bombardment,” he said.
Another military source in Damascus said “the goal of the operation will be to expand the area under the army’s control”.
He said reinforcements had already been brought to Aleppo.
The offensive came after Kerry and Lavrov failed to agree in New York talks on the terms for reviving a ceasefire that collapsed on Monday.
The Thursday talks broke up after Russia refused US demands that it promise to immediately ground the Syrian regime’s air force. “We cannot continue on the same path any longer,” Kerry said, saying credibility had to be restored to the process.
The conflict in Syria has cost more than 300 000 lives and displaced over half the country’s population since March 2011.
In the latest bid to re-launch peace talks, Kerry and Lavrov announced a ceasefire on September 9, with Moscow responsible for forcing government troops to stand down and allow in UN aid convoys.
Washington was supposed to pressure rebel forces to respect the truce and distance themselves from jihadists, but the ceasefire fell apart and the Syrian army declared it over on Monday. UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura has warned of escalating violence.