The Red Cross said Friday it will pull some members of its humanitarian team out of conflict-ravaged Syria in the next few days, as world powers voiced fears over an imminent all-out assault on Syria’s second city of Aleppo.
“Some of the International Committee of the Red Cross team will move to Beirut in the next two days,” said ICRC spokesman Hisham Hassan, adding that 50 international and local staff would remain in Damascus.
The Syrian capital is the only place where the Geneva-based humanitarian organization maintains a presence, while the Syrian Arab Red Crescent is mainly operational in the northern city of Aleppo.
Fears are mounting that the regime is planning a major offensive on Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city where fighting between rebels and government troops is now in its ninth day.
World powers voiced fears Friday over an imminent all-out assault by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces on Aleppo and called for “maximum pressure” to prevent a new massacre.
Turkish Prime Minster Recep Erdogan said that International steps must be taken to deal with Assad’s military build-up around the Syrian city of Aleppo and his government’s threat to use chemical weapons.
“There is a build-up in Aleppo and the recent statements, with respect to the use of weapons of mass destruction, are actions that we cannot remain an observer or spectator to,” he said at a joint news conference in London with British Prime Minister David Cameron, according to Reuters.
Columns of tanks, helicopter gunships and warplanes have poured into Syria’s commercial hub over the past two days, with troops firing on a string of rebel neighborhoods in Aleppo’s southwest on Friday in the battle for control of the city.
Such an assault could be a potential watershed in the 16-month conflict that has already claimed more than 19,000 lives according to opposition activists.
“Steps need to be taken jointly within the United Nations Security Council, the Organization of Islamic Countries, the Arab League, and we must work together to try to overcome the situation,” said Erdogan.
Cameron said Britain and Turkey were concerned that Assad’s government was about to carry out some “some truly appalling acts around and in the city of Aleppo.”
“This would be completely unacceptable. This regime needs to realize it is illegitimate, it is wrong and it needs to stop what it is doing,” Cameron said.
France echoed U.S. concerns that Assad was preparing to carry out a slaughter of his own people, and Britain warned that the expected offensive could end in a humanitarian disaster.
“With the build-up of heavy weapons around Aleppo, Assad is preparing to carry out a fresh slaughter of his own people,” French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero told AFP, reiterating a call on Assad to end the violence and step down.
The U.S. State Department voiced similar concerns on Thursday.
“This is the concern, that we will see a massacre in Aleppo, and that's what the regime appears to be lining up for,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was “deeply concerned” about the reported buildup of troops and tanks around Aleppo, and that the regime “has already begun a vicious assault on the city and its civilian population.”
“This utterly unacceptable escalation of the conflict could lead to a devastating loss of civilian life and a humanitarian disaster,” he said in a statement.
“It will add to the misery being endured by the Syrian people, and plunge the country further into catastrophic civil war.”
“The Assad regime must call off this assault.”
Italy called for “maximum pressure” on Assad to prevent further killings.
“We need everyone to raise the pressure to maximum on Assad to ward off a new massacre,” Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi said in a statement, expressing fears about the “distressing” situation in Aleppo.
The U.N. human rights chief said she was also alarmed by reports of atrocities in Syria and warned that civilians were at “grave risk” in Aleppo.
“I have been receiving as yet unconfirmed reports of atrocities, including extra-judicial killings and shootings of civilians by snipers, that took place during the recent fighting in various suburbs of Damascus,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a statement.
“It goes without saying that the increasing use of heavy weapons, tanks, attack helicopters and -- reportedly -- even jet fighters in urban areas has already caused many civilian casualties and is putting many more at grave risk.”
“All this, taken along with the reported build-up of forces in and around Aleppo, bodes ill for the people of that city,” she said.