UN alleges Aleppo war crimes as talks edge closer


GENEVA — A U.N. panel said Wednesday the evacuation of eastern Aleppo, after months of siege and aerial bombing by Russian and Syrian forces, was one of many war crimes committed by those fighting for control of the city.

The findings came amid open-ended peace talks mediated by a U.N. envoy, and could bolster opposition demands for a political transition in which Syrian President Bashar Assad would cede power — something the government has adamantly rejected.

But in a sign of moderate progress, after almost a week of meetings, the sides appear to have signed off on the agenda proposed by U.N. Syrian envoy Staffan de Mistura: separate “baskets” of topics covering the issues of governance, elections and constitutions.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told reporters in Geneva that “the parties have agreed to … discuss all issues in a parallel way, on several tracks.” After a Damascus request, the issue of terrorism, is also on the table, he said.

The official Syrian news agency SANA said the government delegation had held “deep” and “fruitful” discussions over the “basic principles” for the political solution in Syria and succeeded in incorporating terrorism as a topic of discussion.

De Mistura held back-to-back meetings with the government delegation and the main Syrian opposition Wednesday. He seemed in good spirits, but declined to comment on whether all sides had agreed on his agenda.

“We will see in the next two days,” he told The Associated Press.

Further talks are scheduled for Thursday.

Meanwhile, Yahya Kadamani, a prominent member of the largest opposition mission in Geneva, said his delegation had a “positive” meeting with the Russian minister. Opposition delegates, he said, used the meeting to push Moscow for a change of approach in Syria.

“We want them to be neutral and not an enemy to Syria,” he said. “We want them to put pressure and be guarantors to the process of political transition.”

Earlier in the day, the Commission of Inquiry on Syria unveiled a report looking at violations by all parties in last year’s battle for Aleppo, including indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, and the use of chemical agents and cluster munitions. A stinging bombing campaign by the Russia and Syrian air force, coupled with the denial of humanitarian aid, drove rebels in the city to finally surrender.

“The scale of what happened in Aleppo is unprecedented in the Syrian conflict,” said the commission’s chairman, Paulo Pinheiro.

Aleppo was the economic capital of Syria before becoming a major battleground after rebels swept in during the summer of 2012. For Assad, the capture of eastern Aleppo in December was a huge victory and shifted the military balance in his favor.

The agreement to evacuate rebel-held eastern Aleppo gave civilians no option to remain at the end of the protracted campaign, in which daily aerial bombings killed hundreds of people and left all the hospitals in the area out of service.