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Last ditch bid to save Syria deal as Aleppo burns

Rescuers remove a victim from the rubble of a destroyed building following a reported air strike in the Qatarji neighbourhood of the northern city of Aleppo © AFP / Ameer Alhalbi

New York, United States, Sep 22 – The United States and Russia convened a last-ditch meeting to save their Syria ceasefire plan Thursday as an intense bombardment left the city of Aleppo in flames.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gathered fellow international envoys at crisis talks in New York for the second time in three days.

The 23-nation International Syria Support Group was to decide if it is worth trying to revive a shaky truce that collapsed on Monday amid bitter diplomatic recriminations.

UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura said the ISSG would not be meeting again if there was no chance of progress, but diplomats were careful to play down expectations.

“You are radiating what I think is a legitimate pessimism,” Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told reporters before heading to the New York hotel.

Earlier, Kerry had said: “It’s going to be difficult. We’ll see what people are willing to do.”

On September 9, Kerry and Lavrov met in Geneva and agreed to call a ceasefire, with Moscow responsible for forcing Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s forces to stand down.

The United States was to pressure opposition rebel forces to obey the truce but both sides cried foul and on Monday this week the Syrian army declared the ceasefire over.

Diplomats believe the US-Russian Geneva process is the only available hope to end the five-year conflict, but Moscow and Washington have fallen out spectacularly.

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Russia says Kerry failed to deliver a rebel ceasefire, and was furious when US-led coalition warplanes bombed a Syrian base, a strike Washington says was an error.

Washington in turn accused Russian jets of carrying out a deadly strike on a UN aid convoy on Monday, and Kerry and Lavrov exchanged angry words at the Security Council.

“I listened to my colleague from Russia and felt a little bit like we are in a parallel universe,” Kerry declared on Wednesday after Lavrov tried to blame the rebels.

Damaged Red Cross and Arab Red Crescent medical supplies are seen in a warehouse in the town of Orum al-Kubra on the western outskirts of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on September 20, 2016 © AFP / Omar haj kadour

Kerry told the Council the only hope of reviving the ceasefire would be for Russia to order Assad to ground his air force and stop hitting civilian targets.

The sparring partners met twice overnight ahead of the ISSG meeting to try to move their positions closer, but US officials cautioned against hope of a new deal.

Indeed, on the ground the situation continued to worsen, as huge blazes erupted in the besieged city of Aleppo as fighting and air strikes raged through the night.

An AFP correspondent in the eastern Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood reported that his entire street was in flames following the pre-dawn strikes.

Volunteer firefighters battled to contain the blazes, which local activists at the Aleppo Media Centre said were caused by “incendiary phosphorous bombs.”

In footage posted by the group, a ball of flame shoots up over the city, lighting up the skyline.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said strikes on the rebel-held neighborhoods of Bustan al-Qasr and Al-Kalasseh “led to massive fires.”

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Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said raids by Russian warplanes on Thursday killed 13 people, including three women, in the city.

– ‘Assad, do your bit’ –

The latest Syria truce deal was reached after marathon talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier this month in Geneva © POOL/AFP/File / Kevin Lamarque

“The non-stop strikes last night were so violent I can’t even describe them,” said Ibrahim Abu al-Leith of the White Helmets, a Syrian group of emergency responders.

Residents of east Aleppo’s have been living under government siege since early September.

Food aid promised for them under the US-Russia deal has been stalled at the border since last week and will go bad in just a few days.

“Forty trucks are sitting at the Turkish-Syrian border. The food will be expiring on Monday,” the head of the UN humanitarian taskforce for Syria, Jan Egeland, said.

“The drivers are sleeping at the border and they have done so now for now a week, so please, President Assad, do your bit to enable us to get to eastern Aleppo.”

The UN resumed aid deliveries on Thursday after a pause in the wake of a strike on the convoy in Syria’s north that killed 20 civilians and destroyed 18 aid trucks.

– Talks in ‘next few weeks’? –

The United Nations’ deputy envoy for Syria said Thursday that he hoped talks could resume in the coming weeks, despite “grim” events on the ground.

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Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy said De Mistura is in talks with the parties to organize “direct negotiations”, a departure from past rounds where the sides met with mediators.

The UN is working “with a view to holding these talks, hopefully in the next few weeks,” he said.

Meanwhile, a “minister” in Syria’s opposition government was among at least 12 killed in a car bomb attack in the southern province of Daraa, rebel officials told AFP.

And in central Syria, 123 rebel fighters and their families were bussed out of the last opposition-held district of Homs into northern parts of the province.


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