UN rights boss denounces air strikes on Aleppo as war crimes

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GENEVA, Oct 21 (Reuters) - The top United Nations human rights official said on Friday that the siege and bombing of eastern Aleppo in Syria constituted "crimes of historic proportions" that have caused heavy civilian casualties amounting to war crimes.

Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein did not specifically name Russia, whose war planes have carried out weeks of air strikes on the rebel-held part of Aleppo along with the Syrian air force, but his reference was clear.

"Armed opoposition groups continue to fire mortars and other projectiles into civilian neighborhoods of western Aleppo, but indiscriminate air strikes across the eastern part of the city by Government forces and their allies are responsible for the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties," Zeid said in a speech by video to a special session of the U.N. Human Rights Council.

RELATED: Satellite photos show the extent of the bombings in Aleppo

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Satellite photos show the extent of the bombings in Aleppo
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Satellite photos show the extent of the bombings in Aleppo
In this still image taken from video provided by the Syrian government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media, damaged buildings inside the Bustan Al-Basha neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. The footage shows extensive destruction to buildings in the neighborhood and a factory of hand-made bombs using home gas bottles as shells. (Syrian Central Military Media via AP)
In this still image taken from video provided by the Syrian government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media, government troops patrol inside the Bustan Al-Basha neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. The footage shows extensive destruction to buildings in the neighborhood and a factory of hand-made bombs using home gas bottles as shells. (Syrian Central Military Media via AP)
This satellite image released by the United Nations, shows a damaged industrial area of the Karm ad- Da'Da' district of Aleppo, Syria, Sept. 25, 2016. One official with the U.N.'s satellite imagery program says new pictures from rebel-held parts areas of the city show "an awful lot of new damage" _ presumably by airstrikes. The release coincides with a stepped-up offensive by Syrian pro-government forces that are attacking the city from the south in a bid to penetrate its opposition-controlled areas, where the U.N. estimates 275,000 people are trapped in a government siege. (Digital Globe, US Department of State, Humanitarian Information Unit, UNITAR-UNOSAT via AP)
This satellite image released by the United Nations, shows damaged houses in the Ayn at-Tal district of Aleppo, Syria, Sept. 25, 2016. One official with the U.N.'s satellite imagery program says new pictures from rebel-held parts areas of the city show "an awful lot of new damage" _ presumably by airstrikes. The release coincides with a stepped-up offensive by Syrian pro-government forces that are attacking the city from the south in a bid to penetrate its opposition-controlled areas, where the U.N. estimates 275,000 people are trapped in a government siege. (Digital Globe, US Department of State, Humanitarian Information Unit, UNITAR-UNOSAT via AP)
This satellite images released by the United Nations, shows road damage and craters, in the Sha'ar district of Aleppo, Syria, Sept. 18, 2016. One official with the U.N.'s satellite imagery program saying new pictures from rebel-held parts areas of the city show "an awful lot of new damage" _ presumably by airstrikes. The release coincides with a stepped-up offensive by Syrian pro-government forces that are attacking the city from the south in a bid to penetrate its opposition-controlled areas, where the U.N. estimates 275,000 people are trapped in a government siege. (Digital Globe, US Department of State, Humanitarian Information Unit, UNITAR-UNOSAT via AP)
This satellite image released by the United Nations, shows destroyed houses and a damaged school in the Tahal Jabal Badro district of Aleppo, Syria, Sept. 25, 2016. One official with the U.N.'s satellite imagery program says new pictures from rebel-held parts areas of the city show "an awful lot of new damage" _ presumably by airstrikes. The release coincides with a stepped-up offensive by Syrian pro-government forces that are attacking the city from the south in a bid to penetrate its opposition-controlled areas, where the U.N. estimates 275,000 people are trapped in a government siege. (Digital Globe, US Department of State, Humanitarian Information Unit, UNITAR-UNOSAT via AP)
This satellite images released by the United Nations, shows road damage and craters, in the Sha'ar district of Aleppo, Syria, Sept. 25, 2016. One official with the U.N.'s satellite imagery program saying new pictures from rebel-held parts areas of the city show "an awful lot of new damage" _ presumably by airstrikes. The release coincides with a stepped-up offensive by Syrian pro-government forces that are attacking the city from the south in a bid to penetrate its opposition-controlled areas, where the U.N. estimates 275,000 people are trapped in a government siege. (Digital Globe, US Department of State, Humanitarian Information Unit, UNITAR-UNOSAT via AP)
This satellite image released by the United Nations, shows destroyed houses in the Karm ad-Da'a' district of Aleppo, Syria, Sept. 25, 2016. One official with the U.N.'s satellite imagery program saying new pictures from rebel-held parts areas of the city show "an awful lot of new damage" _ presumably by airstrikes. The release coincides with a stepped-up offensive by Syrian pro-government forces that are attacking the city from the south in a bid to penetrate its opposition-controlled areas, where the U.N. estimates 275,000 people are trapped in a government siege. (Digital Globe, US Department of State, Humanitarian Information Unit, UNITAR-UNOSAT via AP)
This satellite images released by the United Nations, shows destroyed houses in the Karm ad Da'a' district of Aleppo, Syria, Sept. 18, 2016. One official with the U.N.'s satellite imagery program saying new pictures from rebel-held parts areas of the city show "an awful lot of new damage" _ presumably by airstrikes. The release coincides with a stepped-up offensive by Syrian pro-government forces that are attacking the city from the south in a bid to penetrate its opposition-controlled areas, where the U.N. estimates 275,000 people are trapped in a government siege. (DIGITAL GLOBE, US Department of State, Humanitarian Information Unit, UNITAR-UNOSAT via AP)
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He called for major powers to put aside their differences and refer the situation in Syria to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

"The violations and abuses suffered by people across the country, including the siege and bombardment of eastern Aleppo, are simply not tragedies; they also constitute crimes of historic proportions," Zeid told the Geneva session.

Russia has denied any deliberate targeting of civilians and says it is combating terrorists.

CEASEFIRE

Britain, which requested the one-day session along with allies including the United States in order to set up a special inquiry on Aleppo, sought to shame Russia for its air strikes on Aleppo.

"Russia, you are making the situation worse, not solving it," Tobias Ellwood, the British government minister for Africa and the Middle East, said in a speech to the Geneva forum.

"This is shameful and it is not the action or leadership that we expect from a P5 nation," he said, referring to the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.

Russian Ambassador Alexey Borodavkin accused Britain and its allies of "trying to save terrorists from being the target of strikes, allowing them to regroup and continue their barbarbic acts."

An 11-hour unilateral ceasefire in Aleppo, offered by Russia on Thursday, was "allowing civilians and those fighters who lay down their weapons to leave" the city, Moscow's envoy said.

Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the U.N. commission of inquiry on Syria, said that the panel would continue to document war crimes in Aleppo in an impartial way and urged the government of President Bashar al-Assad to provide information on violations.

"Over a quarter of a million people have been besieged and subjected to withering daily air strikes for more than one month," Pinheiro said. "Hospitals, markets, bakeries and water stations have all been targeted by airplanes flying overhead; many have been destroyed, amplifying the effect of the siege."

Syria's ambassador Hussam Aala accused Western and Gulf countries of launching a "propaganda campaign" against his country and said Syria rejects the "lies and manipulation of the Human Rights Council by Britian and its allies." (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Tom Miles and Ralph Boulton)

RELATED: Inside destruction and fighting in Aleppo, Syria

23 PHOTOS
Inside destruction and fighting in Aleppo, Syria
See Gallery
Inside destruction and fighting in Aleppo, Syria
A young Syrian boy cries as he sits on the rubble after a missile fired by Syrian government forces hit a residential area in the Maghayir district in the old quarter of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on July 21, 2015. According to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights more than 35 homes were destroyed in the attack killing at least 18 civilians, adding that the death toll was likely to rise. AFP PHOTO / KARAM AL-MASRI (Photo credit should read KARAM AL-MASRI/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrians carry a body on a stretcher over the rubble after a missile fired by Syrian government forces hit a residential area in the Maghayir district in the old quarter of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on July 21, 2015. According to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights more than 35 homes were destroyed in the attack killing at least 18 civilians, adding that the death toll was likely to rise. AFP PHOTO / KARAM AL-MASRI (Photo credit should read KARAM AL-MASRI/AFP/Getty Images)
People walk past a damaged building in the al-Kalasa neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on July 19, 2015. AFP PHOTO / AMC / KHALED KHATEB (Photo credit should read KHALED KHATEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrians stand on the rubble of a destroyed building following a reportedly barrel bomb attack by Syrian government forces in an rebel-held area in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on July 8, 2015. More than 230,000 people have been killed in Syria since the country's conflict began in March 2011 . AFP PHOTO / AMC / ZEIN AL-RIFAI (Photo credit should read ZEIN AL-RIFAI/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian man carries the body of a child wrapped in a cloth after its been removed from under the rubble of destroyed buildings following reported airstrikes by government forces on the rebel-controlled part of Aleppo's Maadi residential district, on June 21, 2015. AFP PHOTO / KARAM AL-MASRI (Photo credit should read KARAM AL-MASRI/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the Syrian Red Crescent rests at the Garage al-Hajz crossing in the rebel-held neighbourhood of Bustan al-Qasr district in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo ahead of a reported exchange operation between the Syrian regime and rebel group fighters on June 11, 2015. Arabic writting on the wall reads' Free Masons are those who stand behind Bashar [al-Assad]'.AFP PHOTO / KARAM AL-MASRI (Photo credit should read KARAM AL-MASRI/AFP/Getty Images)
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrians gather in a street that was hit by shelling, in the predominantly Christian and Armenian neighborhood of Suleimaniyeh, Aleppo, Syria, Saturday, April 11, 2015. Syrian state television and an activist group say opposition fighters have shelled the government-held neighborhood in the northern city of Aleppo, killing several people and wounding dozens. (AP Photo/SANA)
Smoke rises from buildings in the area of Tal Sharba following government air strikes on the outskirts of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on December 27, 2015, as government forces seized the area from Islamic State (IS) group jihadists. AFP PHOTO / GEORGE OURFALIAN / AFP / GEORGE OURFALIAN (Photo credit should read GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - DECEMBER 25: A man runs away as flames rise after the war crafts belonging to the Russian army carried out airstrikes on two hospital in the Azaz town of Aleppo, Syria on December 25, 2015. (Photo by IHH/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - OCTOBER 13 : Wreckage of buildings are seen after Russian war crafts hit the Syrian opposition controlled town Hayan in Aleppo, Syria on October 13, 2015. (Photo by Ahmed Hasan Ubeyd/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - OCTOBER 13: A view of the attack site after Russian war crafts hit the Syrian opposition controlled town Daret Ezza in Aleppo, Syria on October 13, 2015. (Photo by Mamun Abu Omer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - MAY 14 : Smoke rises after US-led coalition forces hit Daesh targets in northern Aleppo, Syria on May 14, 2015. (Photo by Huseyin Nasir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - MAY 12: Members of al-Shamiyya Front fire artillery as they attack the western side of Sehba Dam which is under control of Daesh in northern Aleppo, Syria on May 12, 2015. (Photo by Huseyin Nasir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - MAY 12: Members of al-Shamiyya Front are seen before they attack the western side of Sehba Dam which is under control of Daesh in northern Aleppo, Syria on May 12, 2015. (Photo by Salih Mahmud Leyla/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - AUGUST 09: Smoke rises after Russian forces airstrike over opposition controlled cement plant located in southeast of Aleppo, Syria on August 09, 2016. (Photo by Beha El Halebi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - AUGUST 08: Members of the Syrian oppositions launch rocket attack to military headquarters at Assad Regime controlled Hamdaniya district of Aleppo, Syria on August 8, 2016. (Photo by Beha El Halebi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - JULY 26 : Syrians inspect the damage after Asad Regime forces' attack on opposition controlled Meshed region in Aleppo, Syria on July 26, 2016. (Photo by Mustafa Sultan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - JULY 17: Smoke rises after an ammunition depot belongs to Assad Regime forces, exploded due to an unknown reason at Sufayra district of Aleppo, Syria on July 17, 2016. (Photo by Muhammed Kurab/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
People walk past a damaged barbershop in a government-controlled district of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on May 21, 2016. In Syrias second city Aleppo, war-weary residents have replaced their fragile glass windows with nylon plastic. Because of the clashes, shelling and the sharp increase in the price of glass, residents across divided Aleppo no longer use glass. A square meter of glass costs 3,300 Syrian pounds now -- compared to 425 before the war began. But a meter of nylon plastic costs a maximum of 500 Syrian pounds. / AFP / GEORGE OURFALIAN / TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY KARAM AL-MASRI AND AHMAD ABOUZEID (Photo credit should read GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Orphans children in a shelter in the city of Aleppo. Syria. (Photo by Eduardo Martins/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - APRIL 5 : Wreckage of a Syrian Regime Forces' warplane is seen after it has been shot down by the opposition forces in Aleppo's Ays district, Syria on April 5, 2016. (Photo by Firas Faham/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - APRIL 3: Smoke rises as the war-crafts belonging to the US-led coalition forces carry out airstrikes on Daesh terrorist organization's positions near the Tat village in Aleppo, Syria after Syrian opponents took control of three villages on April 3, 2016. (Photo by Huseyin Nasr/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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