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Russia says Syria army halts Aleppo attacks as rebels cornered

Syrian residents fleeing the violence gather at a checkpoint, manned by pro-government forces, in the Maysaloun neighbourhood of the northern embattled Syrian city of Aleppo on December 8, 2016 © AFP / Youssef KARWASHAN

Aleppo, Syrian Arab Republic, Dec 8 – Syria’s army has halted its attacks in Aleppo to allow trapped civilians to be evacuated, Russia’s foreign minister said, after advancing regime forces cornered rebels in the city.

Immediately after the announcement, AFP correspondents in Aleppo said air strikes ceased and artillery fire was far less intense, but later reported that the army was continuing to shell two rebels districts, Kalasseh and al-Maadi.

The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights monitoring group also reported sporadic clashes with new raids and artillery fire late Thursday and said at least 18 civilians had been killed during the day in rebel zones by regime raids and artillery.

The situation on the ground seemed somewhat at odds with comments by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier Thursday after talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry in the German city of Hamburg.

“I can tell you that today combat operations by the Syrian army have been halted in eastern Aleppo because there is a large operation under way to evacuate civilians,” Lavrov said. “There is going to be to a column of 8,000 evacuees.”

Rebels in Aleppo have called for a truce © AFP / Sophie Ramis, Simon Malfatto, Valentina Breschi, Frédéric Bourgeais

In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Lavrov’s announcement was “an indication that something positive could happen”.

The UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said after Lavrov spoke that talks to end the nearly six-year war should resume soon.

“Now is the time to actually look seriously at the possible renewal of political discussions,” he said after a closed-door meeting of the Security Council.

The General Assembly was to vote Friday on a draft resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire and access for humanitarian aid, although the British ambassador described the measure as “too little, too late”.

A senior State Department official said Lavrov and Kerry “agreed to continuing having discussions about establishing a framework for a ceasefire”.

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There was no immediate reaction from Damascus.

– ‘There has to be a pause’ –

Moscow is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and launched an air war in support of his forces last year, while Washington and other Western nations have supported rebel forces.

Russia this week suggested a deal was in the works for rebels to be allowed to withdraw from Aleppo to other opposition-held territory.

Syrian troops are seen inside the citadel of the northern city of Aleppo, on December 7, 2016 © AFP / George Ourfalian

On the strength of his army’s latest gains in territory of east Aleppo held by the rebels, Assad said in a newspaper interview Thursday that victory for his troops would be a turning point in Syria’s five-year war.

Three weeks into a major offensive to retake all of Aleppo, government troops have captured about 85 percent of territory rebels controlled in the city’s east.

AFP correspondents in the city said rebel areas faced intense bombardment on Thursday before Lavrov’s announcement.

Cornered in a shrinking enclave in Aleppo’s southeast, the rebels have asked for a five-day ceasefire. Western countries have backed the call.

Syrian rebels have called for a five-day truce and the evacuation of civilians from eastern Aleppo © AFP / George Ourfalian

The UN renewed its call for an immediate ceasefire in Aleppo, warning that as many as 500 sick and injured children desperately needed to be evacuated.

“There has to be a pause,” said Jan Egeland, head of the UN-backed humanitarian taskforce for Syria.

“At the moment, those who… try to escape are caught in crossfire, they are caught in shelling, (and) risk being hit by snipers.”

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In his interview with Syrian daily Al-Watan, Assad predicted victory for his forces in Aleppo, though he admitted that would not end the country’s conflict entirely.

“It’s true that Aleppo will be a win for us,” Assad said.

“Let’s be realistic — it won’t mean the end of the war in Syria,” he said. “But it will be a huge step towards this end.”

– ‘I feel reborn’ –

Rebels seized control of large parts of Aleppo in 2012, dividing Syria’s former commercial hub into an opposition-held east and government-controlled west.

Syrian residents fleeing the violence in the eastern rebel-held parts of Aleppo evacuate from their neighbourhoods through the Bab al-Hadid district after it was seized by the government forces, on December 7, 2016 © AFP / GEORGE OURFALIAN

For years Aleppo was a key battleground and important rebel stronghold, but Assad’s forces have recently made a concerted push to retake the city.

In the last week, government forces steadily gained ground until on Wednesday — after a highly symbolic retreat from the Old City — the rebels called for the ceasefire to allow thousands of civilians to evacuate.

The assault has prompted a mass exodus from east Aleppo where at least 80,000 people have fled their homes, according to the monitor © AFP / Youssef KARWASHAN

Assad’s government has said a truce is only possible after a full rebel withdrawal, and opposition fighters have rejected any talk of abandoning Aleppo.

On Thursday the army, backed by fighters from Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, continued to advance, said the Britain-based Observatory.

All rebel areas had been under heavy bombardment, it said, with opposition forces returning fire with rockets into government-controlled west Aleppo.

Around 400 civilians have been killed in east Aleppo during the offensive, while rebel fire into the west has killed another 100 people, the Observatory has said.

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The assault has prompted a mass exodus from east Aleppo where at least 80,000 people have fled their homes, according to the monitor.

On Thursday, hundreds of families, most of them from the Salhine district, arrived in the city’s southeastern suburb of Aziza.

“I feel reborn,” said Yasser, a 40-year-old father of four as he tugged at a cart carrying his ailing mother and stacked with luggage.

It is unclear how many civilians remain in rebel territory, but there were an estimated 250,000 in east Aleppo prior to the latest offensive.


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