Millions risk starvation in Nigeria, Lake Chad region: United Nations

Children attend a class at a primary school in Muna Garage IDP camp, Maiduguri, Nigeria November 7, 2016. UNICEF/Naftalin/Handout via REUTERS

By Gwladys Fouche

OSLO (Reuters) – More than seven million people risk starvation in Nigeria’s insurgency-hit northeastern region and around Lake Chad, a senior U.N. official said on Wednesday ahead of a new funding appeal.

Famine has been ongoing since last year in parts of Nigeria where the government is fighting a seven-year long Boko Haram insurgency.

An international donor conference in Oslo on Friday will aim to raise a chunk of the $1.5 billion the United Nations says it needs to address deepening food insecurity in the region this year.

“They are living on the edge, barely getting by on one meal a day,” Toby Lanzer, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel, told Reuters. “My biggest concern today is starvation.”

Earlier this week the United Nations said 1.4 million children were at risk of “imminent death” in famines in Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen.

Lanzer said he was worried the Boko Haram insurgency would deter farmers from planting their crops after missing the last three planting seasons, and that the number of lives at risk could increase. He also expressed concerns the coming rainy season could harm vulnerable people.

“Hungry people without shelter when it rains die,” he said.

Lanzer said the humanitarian response needed to go beyond food aid and include seeds, tools and fishing nets.

Lanzer said he hoped a total $500 million will have been pledged by the end of February, including this week’s funding round.

Lanzer, who has also worked in South Sudan, Darfur and Chechnya, said it was difficult to estimate how many people would die from hunger in the next few months.

“If we were to lose another planting season, I dread to think how severe the crisis could get,” he said.

Some 10.7 million people in northeastern Nigeria and around Lake Chad — roughly two in every three people — need humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations.

Boko Haram militants have killed about 15,000 people and forced more than 2 million from their homes, and still launch deadly attacks despite having been pushed out of the vast swathes of territory they controlled in 2014.

Lanzer cautioned that failure to address the deteriorating situation could encourage more Africans to try and flee to Europe.

(Editing by Richard Lough)

Plane strike hits Yemen mourners, killing 9 women, 1 child: residents

Yemen rubble after air strike that killed women and child

SANAA (Reuters) – Warplanes of the Saudi-led coalition struck a house north of Yemen’s capital where a crowd of mourners was gathered, residents said on Thursday, killing nine women and a child and injuring dozens.

The Saudi-led coalition said it was investigating reports of civilian casualties in the area.

The air strike hit the house of a local tribal leader in Ashira, a village north of Sanaa, on Wednesday night, a resident told Reuters. Mourners had gathered there to offer condolences after a woman died.

“People heard the sound of planes and started running from the house but then the bombs hit the house directly. The roof collapsed. Blood was everywhere,” a second resident of Ashira, who gave his name as Hamid Ali, told a Reuters cameraman.

Pictures published by local media showed tribesmen searching through the rubble of a destroyed house said to belong to Mohammed al-Nakaya, a tribal leader allied with Yemen’s Houthi movement.

One showed a man kneeling in the dust cradling the body of an elderly woman.

It was not immediately possible to verify the authenticity of the pictures.

“We are aware of media reports that Houthi rebels are claiming that Yemeni civilians were killed in an air raid overnight near Sanaa,” the coalition said in statement.

“There has been fighting between Yemeni armed forces and rebels in this area in recent days. We are investigating the reports.”

In October the alliance of mainly Gulf Arab states was heavily criticized after launching an air strike on a funeral gathering in Sanaa that killed 140 people, according to one U.N. estimate.

The death toll from that strike was one of the highest in any single incident since the alliance began military operations in March 2015 to try to restore the administration of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who the Houthis ousted.

The White House said at the time it might consider cutting its support to the Saudi-led campaign which has been providing air support for Hadi’s forces in a civil war that has killed more than 10,000 people and displaced millions.

The alliance, which says it does not target civilians, blamed the October funeral attack on incorrect information it said it received from the Yemeni military that armed Houthi leaders were in the area.

(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Tom Finn and Sami Aboudi,; Editing by Toby Chopra and John Stonestreet)

U.N. seeks $2.1 billion to avert famine in Yemen

girls stand at the entrace of tent in yemen

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United Nations appealed on Wednesday for $2.1 billion to provide food and other life-saving assistance to 12 million people in Yemen who face the threat of famine after two years of war.

“The situation in Yemen is catastrophic and rapidly deteriorating,” Jamie McGoldrick, U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, said in the appeal document.

“Nearly 3.3 million people – including 2.1 million children – are acutely malnourished.”

Yemen has been divided by nearly two years of civil war that pits the Iran-allied Houthi group against a Sunni Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia. At least 10,000 people have been killed in the fighting, which has unleashed a humanitarian crisis in the desperately poor Arabian Peninsula country.

In all, nearly 19 million Yemenis – more than two-thirds of the population – need assistance and protection, the U.N. said.

“Ongoing air strikes and fighting continue to inflict heavy casualties, damage public and private infrastructure, and impede delivery of humanitarian assistance,” it said.

“The Yemeni economy is being wilfully destroyed,” it added, saying that ports, roads, bridges, factories and markets have been hit.

An estimated 63,000 Yemeni children died last year of preventable causes often linked to malnutrition, the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said last week.

“In Yemen, if bombs don’t kill you, a slow and painful death by starvation is now an increasing threat,” Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said in a separate statement as the U.N. plan was launched.

A military coalition led by Saudi Arabia entered Yemen’s civil war in March 2015 to try to reinstate President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi after he was ousted from the capital Sanaa by the tribal Houthis, who are fighting in an alliance with troops loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The United States has sent the Navy destroyer USS Cole to patrol off Yemen’s coast to protect waterways from Houthi militia aligned with Iran, U.S. officials last week, amid rising tension between Washington and Tehran.

Oxfam accused Britain and other powers backing the Saudi-led coalition of “political complicity” in the Yemen conflict.

“The UK Government’s calculated complicity risks accelerating Yemen toward a famine, putting millions of lives at risk and making a mockery of their global obligations to those in peril,” Mark Goldring, chief executive of Oxfam GB, said in a statement.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Tom Miles and Tom Heneghan)

Yemen war erases decade of health gains, many children starving: UNICEF


By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Yemen has lost a decade’s worth of gains in public health as a result of war and economic crisis, with increasing numbers of children succumbing to malnutrition, the United Nations’ Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said on Tuesday.

An estimated 3.3 million people, including 2.2 million children, across the Arab peninsula’s poorest country are suffering from acute malnutrition, and 460,000 under the age of five have severe acute malnutrition, the agency said.

The most severe form leaves young children vulnerable to life-threatening diarrhoeal diseases and respiratory infections.

“What worries us is the severe acute malnutrition because it is killing children,” Meritxell Relano, UNICEF representative in Yemen, told Reuters in Geneva.

“Because of the crumbling health system, the conflict and economic crisis, we have gone back to 10 years ago. A decade has been lost in health gains,” she said, with 63 out of every 1,000 live births now dying before their fifth birthday, against 53 children in 2014.

Children and pregnant and lactating women are most heavily affected by the malnutrition crisis in the northern province of Saada, in the coastal area of Hodeida and in Taiz in the south, she said.

UNICEF mobile teams aim to screen more children and reach 323,000 severely malnourished children this year, up from 237,000 last year, Relano said, adding that partner agencies would target the rest.

The Yemeni conflict, which pits a Saudi-led Arab coalition against the Iran-allied Houthi movement, has left more than half of the country’s 28 million people “food insecure”, with seven million of them enduring hunger, the United Nations has said.

Jamie McGoldrick, the top U.N. aid official in the country, told Reuters on Friday that Yemen has roughly three months’ supply of wheat left to draw from, leaving the country exposed to serious disruption as a central bank crisis cuts food imports and starvation deepens.

Relano said UNICEF had made progress in delivering supplies of energy-rich foods for severely malnourished children.

“We managed to bring supplies into the country. We have 50 percent in the country secured for this year,” she said.

UNICEF is seeking $236.5 million for Yemen this year, as part of its overall appeal of $3.3 billion to help women and children in 48 countries.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Unpaid state salaries deepen economic pain in Yemen’s war

public workers crowd post office to receive salaries

By Noah Browning

DUBAI (Reuters) – Already suffering grievously under nearly two years of civil war, many thousands of Yemeni state workers now face destitution as their salaries have gone largely unpaid for months.

The immediate reason is a decision by the internationally-recognized government to shift Yemen’s central bank out of Sanaa, the capital city controlled by the armed Houthi movement with which it is at war.

Underlying the bank’s move to Aden, the southern port where the government is based, is a struggle for legitimacy between the two sides. The result is to deepen economic hardship when four-fifths of Yemen’s 28 million people already need some form of humanitarian aid, according to U.N. estimates.

“I sold everything I have to cover the rent and the price of the children’s school and food. I have nothing left to sell,” said Ashraf Abdullah, 38, a government employee in Sanaa.

“Salaries have become a playing card in the war, and no one cares about the fate of the people who die of starvation every day,” the father of two told Reuters.

At least 10,000 people have been killed in the fighting while millions face poverty and starvation. Saudi Arabia intervened in March 2015 to back President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi after the Houthis, who are aligned to Riyadh’s regional rival Iran, pushed him out of Sanaa.

The administration in Aden says it had to move the bank in August because the Houthis had looted the funds to pay soldiers and fighters waging war against it – a charge the group denies.

It has promised to pay salaries to public servants even in the main population centers which are mostly in Houthi hands. Prime Minister Ahmed bin Dagher said it had sent off a payment on Wednesday but banking sources say this covers only December, and four months of wages remain unpaid for most employees.

The crisis has affected tens of thousands of employees in Sanaa alone, a source in the Civil Services ministry said.

It is unclear how many of the 250,000 employees registered nationwide before the Houthis seized Sanaa in 2014 have received incomplete salaries – as a large proportion in government-held areas have been paid.

Nor is the number of public workers appointed by the Houthis after their rise to power, estimated in the tens of thousands.

The government denies it is trying to undermine support for the Houthis – whom it calls “coup militia” – by impoverishing state workers living under their rule. Instead, it accuses the Houthis of obstructing the payments and insists they be the ones to disburse the funds.

“The coup militia … (is) refusing to hand over lists of employees’ salaries in institutions and government agencies in the capital Sanaa and the provinces they control,” government news agency SABA quoted an official as saying.

(For a graphic on battle for control in Yemen, click


While the Houthis still control the main towns and cities in the north and west, they have steadily lost ground to government troops backed up by thousands of Gulf Arab air strikes.

Still, the government struggles to extend its influence over the land it nominally rules. It also faces a southern secessionist movement, restive tribes and Islamic militants, while many services such as electricity and water are scarce.

In the struggle for legitimacy, both sides appear keen to deprive the other of any mantle of truly national authority which paying salaries across the battle lines would confer.

Current and retired soldiers demanding their dues have even regularly demonstrated in Aden’s streets in recent days, suggesting the non-payments may not be strictly political.

Diplomats and analysts worry about the consequences of transferring the bank away from its veteran staff in Sanaa.

“The new central bank in Aden remains unequipped – on the basis of manpower alone – to handle the duties that its predecessor institution did,” said Adam Baron, a Yemen expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The new bank denies this and says it is committed to working impartially and overcoming wartime confusion to do its job.

Meanwhile, many Yemenis can no longer wait for a solution.

“This is our fifth month without a salary, and we live by borrowing from the corner store, but now they are refusing to give us anything are calling in their debt, said Abdullah Ahmed, 50, a soldier in the interior ministry. “The landlord is demanding rent for the apartment … we’re dying, not living. Every door is being closed in our faces.”

(Editing by Tom Finn and David Stamp)

Yemeni farmers urgently need support to help ease hunger crisis: U.N

a Yemeni woman holds her malnourished son

By Alex Whiting

ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In the midst of one of the world’s worst hunger crises, Yemen’s farmers urgently need support so they can grow more food and provide young people with jobs, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said.

Nearly two years of war between a Saudi-led Arab coalition and the Iran-allied Houthi movement has left more than half of Yemen’s 28 million people facing hunger, its economy in ruins and food supplies disrupted.

Nearly half of Yemen’s 22 governorates are officially rated as being in an emergency food situation, which is four on a five-point scale, where five is famine, the United Nations said last month.

“People’s access to food is rapidly worsening and urgent action is needed,” said Salah Hajj Hassan, FAO representative in Yemen.

About two-thirds of the population depends on agriculture for their survival, and it is one of the only sectors of the economy still functioning after years of war, according to FAO.

But farming has been devastated by the conflict, and rural communities need help to restore crops and livestock, the U.N. agency said.

This is especially true for those living in remote or conflict-hit areas which are frequently cut off from food aid, FAO said.

Pressure on rural communities has increased as people fled fighting in the cities to stay with friends or relatives in the countryside, Hajj Hassan said.

Supporting farmers will not only ease hunger levels, it may also help prevent the conflict from worsening.

“From a security point of view, if we don’t give those people the chance to work, what alternatives will young people have?” Hajj Hassan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Yemen’s early warning system also needs to be bolstered so that authorities and aid agencies can monitor changes in hunger levels, and get early information about drought, locust infestations, cyclones and floods – which are frequent visitors to the impoverished country.

“It is absolutely critical for the authorities and the people themselves to … be able to monitor these shocks so … they can take early action to prevent it from turning into a big disaster,” Dominique Burgeon, director of FAO’s emergency and rehabilitation division, said earlier this month.

“In terms of numbers, Yemen is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world,” he said.

The European Union has given 12 million euros to help 150,000 farmers, and to collect more data on people’s access to food, FAO said this week.

(Reporting by Alex Whiting @Alexwhi, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit

New York man gets 13 years prison for trying to join al Qaeda

New York high school senior trying to join al Qaeda

By Nate Raymond

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A New York man was sentenced on Tuesday to 13 years in prison for trying to join the Islamic militant group al Qaeda when he was a high school senior.

Justin Kaliebe, now 22, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Denis Hurley in Central Islip, New York, after pleading guilty in February 2013 to having attempted to provide material support to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Kaliebe had been arrested a month earlier at John F. Kennedy International Airport, where prosecutors said he planned to board a flight to Muscat, Oman, as part of his plot to eventually travel to Yemen.

The defendant was also sentenced to 20 years of supervised release.

“I am disappointed and feel that a lesser sentence was warranted,” Kaliebe’s lawyer Anthony LaPinta said in an email.

“Justin is a harmless young man who had many psychological, medical and personal issues that contributed to his criminal conduct,” LaPinta continued. “Justin will make the best of his time in prison. I am certain that he will emerge as a rehabilitated, productive and respected member of society.”

Federal authorities have estimated that 80 percent of Americans linked to activities supporting militant Islamic movements have radicalized themselves with information from the internet.

Prosecutors said Kaliebe, a resident of Babylon, New York, began his plot in 2011, and told an undercover law enforcement operative the following year that he was “doing the J word,” or violent “jihad.”

In June 2012, Kaliebe was recorded as saying that upon arriving in Yemen, he expected to fight “those who are fighting against the Sharia of Allah,” be it the Yemeni army or U.S. forces, prosecutors said.

Kaliebe received support from Marcos Alonso Zea, another Long Island resident who according to prosecutors attempted to fly to Yemen in January 2012 but was intercepted by British customs officials and returned to the United States.

Zea, 28, was arrested in October 2013 and sentenced in April 2015 to 25 years in prison, after pleading guilty to attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Tom Brown)

Yemen traders halt new wheat imports as famine approaches

A malnourished boy lies on a bed at a malnutrition intensive care unit in the Red Sea port city of Houdeidah, Yemen

By Jonathan Saul and Maha El Dahan

LONDON/ABU DHABI (Reuters) – Yemen’s biggest traders have stopped new wheat imports due to a crisis at the central bank, documents seen by Reuters show, another blow to the war-torn country where millions are suffering acute malnutrition.

Nearly two years of war between a Saudi-led Arab coalition and the Iran-allied Houthi movement has left more than half of Yemen’s 28 million people “food insecure”, with 7 million of them enduring hunger, according to the United Nations.

At the same time, aid agencies are warning that Yemen – the Arabian peninsula’s poorest country – is on the verge of famine, although they have yet to declare one.

Trade and aid sources say the situation was compounded in September when Yemen’s exiled president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, ordered the central bank’s headquarters moved from the capital Sanaa, controlled by Houthi rebels in the north, to the southern port of Aden, the seat of the new government.

This has led in effect to a de facto partition, with rival institutions in the north and south.

Hadi’s government said the Houthis had squandered some $4 billion on the war effort from central bank reserves; the Houthis said the funds financed imports of food and medicine.

In a Nov. 30 letter addressed to Yemen’s trade ministry in Saana, which the company had dealt with before Hadi’s decree to move, leading trader Fahem Group, said: “We would like to inform you that we have been unable to conduct any new contracts for wheat as local banks cannot transfer dollars for the value of any wheat cargoes.”

Fahem Group said in the letter, seen by Reuters, that it wanted to continue importing wheat to cover the population’s needs but was unable to open letters of credit.

Bread forms a major part of people’s diet in Yemen.

Even before the move, the central bank, aiming to shore up dwindling foreign currency, had stopped providing guarantees for importers, leaving them to finance shipments themselves.

Saudi Arabia and allied Sunni Muslim Gulf states began a military campaign in March last year to prevent the Houthis and forces loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh taking control of the whole country after they ousted Hadi in late 2014.

Fahem Group imported an estimated 1.2 million tonnes of wheat into the Red Sea port of Saleef between April 2015 and April 2016, which accounted for between 30 to 40 percent of Yemen’s total wheat imports, according to trade estimates.

A separate letter, also addressed to the Houthi-run authorities in Sanaa by major importer Hayel Saeed Group and other large traders, said those firms had stopped new wheat shipments and urged resolution of the financing problems. Together, those groups accounted for almost all the rest of the wheat imports.


A source with the central bank in the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa said it had no access to foreign reserves at all.

“Importers will have to turn to the Aden central bank for access. This is something outside of its control,” the source said. “Wheat imports have stopped since a little less than a month (ago) and the reserves are around two months now as some prior deals are arriving.”

The trade ministry in Sanaa did not respond to requests for comment.

Monasser al Quaiti, the governor of the central bank in Aden, and the trade ministry in Aden could not be reached for comment. Quaiti, who was appointed by Hadi, has previously said the bank has no money.

Jamie McGoldrick, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, told Reuters, when contacted about the letters: “With this notification by these food importers, they are going to find it challenging, difficult, and maybe even impossible to bring in the wheat for a period of time now.”

Aid agencies are bringing in wheat, but can only cover a fraction of food import requirements, partly due to a lack of funding.

When asked for comment, Brigadier General Ahmed al-Asseri, spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, said the Houthis were deliberately blocking wheat and aid shipments, pointing to cargoes being held up at the Red Sea port of Hodeidah.

“The Houthis try to play this card of the starvation of people to gain more international media attention,” he told Reuters.

The rebel Houthis have accused Saudi Arabia and its allies of imposing a blockade on Yemen. Representatives for the Houthis could not be reached for comment.


Supplies are still reaching many parts of Yemen including Hodeidah and Aden, but other areas particularly Ta’iz in the south, Sa’ada in the north, Shabwah in the center and Al Maharah in the east have struggled to get deliveries due to fighting, data from UN agencies showed.

More recently there were shortages of vegetable oil, wheat flour and sugar in those areas, although precise details were not available from any agency.

The price of wheat flour and sugar were about 25 percent higher in November on average across Yemen than they were before the conflict, the data showed. The volume of fuel imported in November was only 40 percent of Yemen’s monthly requirements.

U.N. children’s agency UNICEF has said malnutrition among children is at an all-time high with nearly 2.2 million in need of urgent care – a spike of almost 200 percent since 2014.

Salah Hajj Hassan, representative in Yemen for UN food agency FAO, said the decision to transfer the central bank to Aden “will have a devastating effect on the already deteriorating economic performance”.

“Traders who are engaged in importing food are worried that, unless, alternative arrangement is foreseen, this decision will leave them financially exposed and make it harder to bring in supplies in Yemen,” Hassan told Reuters.

Aid group Oxfam warned this month that based on current food imports, Yemen will run out of food in a few months.

“Yemen is being slowly starved to death,” said Mark Goldring, chief executive of Oxfam GB.

Shipping and aid sources said even ships that are prepared to berth must wait in line to offload their cargoes. This, together with mounting insurance costs and uncertainty about exchange rates and accepted currencies at the ports, has led to more delays, and higher and more volatile prices.

The United Nations say both sides are holding up aid deliveries and set up its own verification and inspection mechanisms at the start of this year to try to solve the problem.

(Additional reporting by Mohamed Ghobari, William Maclean and Tom Miles; graphic by Christian Inton; editing by William Maclean, Veronica Brown and Philippa Fletcher)

U.N. launches record $22.2 billion humanitarian appeal for 2017

War in Aleppo

By Umberto Bacchi

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The United Nations launched a record humanitarian appeal on Monday, asking for $22.2 billion in 2017 to help almost 93 million people hit by conflicts and natural disasters.

More than half of the money will be used to address the needs of people caught up in crises in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and South Sudan, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said.

The appeal followed a trend of steady increases that have seen requests for funds grow almost three-fold from $7.9 billion in 2011.

“The scale of humanitarian crises today is greater than at any time since the United Nations was founded,” U.N. humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien said in a statement.

“Not in living memory have so many people needed our support and solidarity to survive and live in safety and dignity”.

Several countries, including Afghanistan, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia have issued emergency appeals almost annually for the past 25 years and some faced worsening crises in 2017, the U.N. said.

In 2016, the U.N. sought $22.1 billion, having initially appealed for $20.1 billion but a shortfall in donations meant the appeal was only 51 percent funded as of Nov. 30.

“Sadly, with persistently escalating humanitarian needs, the gap between what has to be done to save and protect more people today and what humanitarians are financed to do and can access is growing ever wider,” OCHA head O’Brien wrote.

As humanitarian needs continue to rise, aid workers are increasingly at risk of targeted attacks and their efforts are hampered by reduced access, growing disrespect for human rights and flagrant violations of international humanitarian law, O’Brien said.

In Syria, humanitarian needs were expected to “grow exponentially” if no political solution was found to the nearly six-year-old conflict, with 13.5 million people requiring aid.

In Afghanistan, where government forces are struggling to contain a Taliban insurgency, 1.8 million people, mostly children, will require treatment for acute malnutrition next year, according to the appeal.

The political crisis in Burundi will see the number of people in need of urgent support triple to about three million.

The U.N. last week doubled its appeal for northeast Nigeria to $1 billion, hoping to reach nearly 7 million people hit by the Islamist militant Boko Haram insurgency, including 75,000 children at risk of starving to death.

“Funding in support of the plans will translate into life-saving food assistance to people on the brink of starvation in the Lake Chad Basin and South Sudan,” said O’Brien.

Long-term conflicts resulted in higher costs partially because falling state revenues required aid agencies to offer healthcare, education and other services traditionally provided by governments, said Paul Knox Clarke, head of research and communications at ALNAP, a humanitarian action learning network.

“You have a situation where the humanitarian funding is basically this sort of welfare service provision,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Astrid Zweynert and Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit

Russia says to start talks with U.S. on Aleppo rebel withdrawal

smoke rises after air strike

By Ellen Francis, Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Maria Kiselyova

BEIRUT/MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Russian government said on Monday it would start talks with Washington on a rebel withdrawal from Aleppo this week as Russian-backed Syrian forces fought to seize more territory from rebels who are struggling to avoid a major defeat.

The latest army attack, which saw fierce clashes around the Old City, aims to cut off another area of rebel control in eastern Aleppo and tighten the noose on opposition-held districts where tens of thousands of people are trapped.

Advances in recent weeks have brought Damascus, backed militarily by Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, closer to recapturing Syria’s second largest city before the nearly six-year war and a prize long sought by President Bashar al-Assad.

The rebels are now reduced to an area just kilometers across.

While Assad’s allies have in the past year turned the battle in his favor, Western and regional states backing the rebels have been unwilling or unable to prevent a major defeat for groups who have fought for years to topple the Syrian leader.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said talks with the United States on the withdrawal of rebels would begin in Geneva on Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning. There was no immediate comment from Washington, which has backed some of the rebels.

“Those armed groups who refuse to leave eastern Aleppo will be considered to be terrorists,” Lavrov told a news conference. “We will treat them as such, as terrorists, as extremists and will support a Syrian army operation against those criminal squads.”

While the rebels have said they will not leave, one opposition official, who declined to be identified, conceded they may have no alternative for the sake of civilians who have been under siege for five months and faced relentless government bombardments.

“The people are paying a high price, with no state or organization intervening,” the official said, adding that this was his personal assessment based on reports from the city.

With narrow alleyways, big mansions and covered markets the ancient city of Aleppo became a UNESCO heritage site in 1986. Many historic buildings have been destroyed in the fighting.


Responding to Russia’s demand for their withdrawal, rebels told U.S. officials on Saturday they would not leave. Reiterating that position on Monday, rebel official Zakaria Malahifji said, “No person in his right mind, who has any sense of responsibility and patriotism, would leave his city.”

“The Russians are trying to do everything they can to make people leave. This is far from reality,” he said, speaking to Reuters from Turkey.

Insurgents, meanwhile, fought back ferociously inside Aleppo. Some of the fighting took place within a kilometre of the ancient citadel, a large fortress built on a mound, and around the historic Old City.

Heavy gunfire could be heard from the Old City and smoke from mortar shell blasts rose from the area, Reuters journalists in a government-held western district said.

Rebels appeared on the verge of being driven from the al-Shaar neighborhood after new advances by Syrian government forces on Sunday. But rebels said they had mounted a counter-attack on Monday, and were recovering ground in some areas.

Clashes raged in the Old City itself, which has long been split between government- and rebel-held areas, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

A Syrian army officer told Reuters intense fighting was taking place around the Old City.

State television broadcast a report from inside a hospital complex seized from rebels on Sunday. The hospital is strategically important because it overlooks surrounding areas held by insurgents.

A government takeover of the eye hospital complex and areas stretching west from there to the citadel would cut the remaining rebel-held areas of eastern Aleppo in two, further isolating embattled rebel groups. Rebels said they were fighting back in that area too on Monday.


“They (rebels) are trying to take back all the areas the regime took yesterday (including) the eye hospital, al-Myassar,” Malahifji said.

Moscow said a rebel attack on a mobile military hospital killed one Russian medic and wounded two others.

The United Nations says more than 200,000 people might still be trapped in rebel-held areas, affected by severe food and aid shortages. “We need to reach them,” U.N. aid chief Stephen O’Brien said in Geneva on Monday.

“People have been eking what they can, prices have skyrocketed so there is a real and severe shortage of foodstuffs.”

Russia is expected to veto a U.N. resolution on Monday which calls for a seven-day ceasefire, with Lavrov saying a truce was counter-productive because it would allow rebels to regroup.

State TV said rebel shelling killed seven people in government-held areas of Aleppo on Monday.

More than 300 people have been killed in government bombardments of rebel-held areas since mid-November, and 70 have died in rebel shellings, the Syrian Observatory says.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Firas Makdesi in Aleppo, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Jack Stubbs in Moscow; Writing by John Davison; Editing by Tom Perry and Peter Millership)