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BEIRUT -- Russia's Defense Ministry said on Monday that its troops had found mass graves in Syria's Aleppo with bodies showing signs of torture and mutilation.

[TIMELINE: Key events in Aleppo since the start of Syria’s uprising ]

Dozens of bodies have been uncovered, according to ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov. He said some bore gunshot wounds.

While the Syrian war is now largely fought with mortars, tanks and air power, death has come at close quarters, as well. Human-rights observers and the media have recorded numerous examples of massacres and organized torture, perpetrated by the government, the opposition and the Islamic State group.

The Russian air force has helped Syrian President Bashar Assad and its allies to capture Aleppo, Syria's largest city, after weeks of a siege. Russia has since dispatched military police to the city.

Konashenkov also accused rebels, who controlled eastern Aleppo before they were pushed out earlier this month, of laying multiple booby traps and mines across there, endangering the civilian population.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which gathers information on the conflict through local contacts, said on Sunday that at least 63 Syrian soldiers and militiamen had been killed by such booby traps in east Aleppo since the government took control of it from rebels on Thursday. The Observatory said the victims were a mix of demining personnel and soldiers or militiamen looting the districts.

As Russian and Syrian forces secured and consolidated eastern Aleppo, Assad was showing signs of increasing confidence in his position.

On Sunday, he visited a Christian orphanage near the capital, Damascus, to mark Christmas.

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Photographs posted on the Syrian presidency's Facebook page showed Assad along with his wife, Asma, standing with nuns and orphans in the Damascus suburb of Sednaya.

In the northern city of Aleppo, Christians celebrated Christmas for the first time in four years with the country's largest city now under full control of government forces.

The rebel withdrawal from east Aleppo last week marked Assad's biggest victory since Syria's civil war began in 2011.

Christians, one of the largest religious minorities at about 10 percent of Syria's prewar population of 23 million, have tried to stay on the sidelines of the conflict. However, the opposition's increasingly outspoken Islamism has kept many leaning toward Assad's government.

Turkey's efforts

Also on Monday, Turkey said it will facilitate contacts between Syria's government and opposition groups in preparation for peace talks organized with Russia and Iran that aim to reach a nationwide cease-fire as the first step to ending the civil war.

"We must find a way to stop this bloodiest war of the modern era," President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said at a news conference in Ankara on Monday. "Our aim here is to make sure the cease-fire is reached and systematically enforced in all of Syria. Our ultimate aim is to reach a political transition process."

Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed in Moscow last week to seek a truce in Syria and hold peace talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana, in a joint approach that sidelines the U.S. They offered to act as guarantors of a peace deal to end the conflict that has killed more than 300,000 people and sent millions fleeing to neighboring countries and to Europe. The priority for the three countries is fighting terrorism, not deposing Assad, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday.

Turkey's military deployed tanks and guns on the Syrian border over the weekend as Erdogan urged joint action with the U.S. to fight Islamic State in its declared capital, Raqqa.

It also complained about a lack of aerial support from the U.S.-led coalition for its operations against the Islamic State group in northern Syria.

Kalin said the coalition "needs to carry out its responsibilities especially on the issue of providing aerial backing."

His comments come days after Turkish troops, trying to recapture the Islamic State-held town of al-Bab, suffered heavy casualties. Some 16 Turkish soldiers were killed in fighting in al-Bab last week and a 17th soldier died Monday from his injuries.

Turkey sent ground troops into northern Syria in August to assist Syrian opposition forces in clearing a border area of militants and to prevent Syrian Kurds from making greater territorial advances.

At least 38 Turkish soldiers have been killed in northern Syria since then.

The date of the Astana talks and the list of participants haven't been set yet, Kalin said. The first meeting is due to be held in mid-January, Russia said Friday. The Syrian government, the "moderate" opposition, the Kurds and forces "on the ground" including armed opposition groups that aren't part of terrorist groups will be invited, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said.

The United Nations, whose efforts to stage Syria peace talks collapsed earlier this year because of continued fighting, has announced a new round will be held in February. The talks in Kazakhstan won't replace the U.N.-led efforts in Geneva, according to Russia and Turkey.

In reality, Russia, Iran and Turkey aim to present a "fait accompli" to other powers after brokering their own solution to the Syrian civil war, said Rafael Enikeev, head of the Middle East department at the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, a Kremlin advisory group.

"Once we have real results, with signed agreements which are guaranteed by Russia, Turkey and Iran, we can take these documents and at that stage involve the U.N. and the West," Enikeev said by phone.

Information for this article was contributed by staff members of The Associated Press; and by Firat Kozok, Taylan Bilgic and Henry Meyer of Bloomberg News.

A Section on 12/27/2016

Print Headline: Russian sweeps of Aleppo turn up mass graves

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