US Secretary of State John Kerry called for the Syrian and Russian governments to face a war-crimes investigation over attacks on civilians in Syria.
Speaking in Washington alongside French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Kerry said Russia and Syria had a "targeted strategy to terrorise civilians and kill anybody who is in the way of their military objectives."
In Geneva, the United Nations put the death toll in rebel-occupied eastern Aleppo at 377 over the past two weeks, with 1286 injured. Actual figures, a UN spokesman said, "were expected to be higher." Repeated bombing of hospitals had left only six operating medical facilities and 30 doctors to serve a population of a quarter-million civilians.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called Kerry's statements "unacceptable judgments." Repeating Moscow's charge that the United States has failed to comply with a US- Russia negotiated cease-fire last month that collapsed within a few days with renewed Syrian and Russian bombing, Ryabkov criticised "high-ranking" US officials who "are trying to lecture us and talk to us in an unacceptably conceited and arrogant tone."
Maria Zakharova, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, called Kerry's statement "propaganda." She referred to "very serious legal consequences" behind the term "war crimes" and said that Kerry had used it "with a view to escalating the situation." She also suggested that the United States was guilty of war crimes in Iraq, Libya and Yemen.
Both Britain and France have previously spoken of Russian and Syrian war crimes in Aleppo, and Kerry last week described violations of "international law."
Actual war-crimes investigations, which generally require action by the UN Security Council or by the International Criminal Court - the United States, Russia and Syria are not members of the ICC - have been few and far between.
"What is unimaginable is that any international war-crimes effort could seriously investigate a great power that does not want to be investigated," particularly a power with a Security Council veto, said Benjamin Wittes, who edits the Lawfare blog on national security.
France has introduced a draft resolution in the council, expected to be voted upon on Saturday, calling for an immediate end to the Aleppo bombing. Ayrault, who met in Moscow on Thursday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, told Lavrov that he "hoped Russia would not want to be an accomplice to this tragedy, which mankind will remember," the French minister said in a meeting with reporters in Washington.
Every nation, he said, must follow not only international law but also its own conscience. Should Russia veto the resolution, "we will never give up simply because it is difficult," Ayrault said.
Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters yesterday that he assumed the purpose of the resolution was to force Russia to veto it. "I don't see how we could possibly admit adoption of that resolution," he said, according to Tass news service.