Russia says Syria army halts Aleppo attacks as rebels cornered

Update: December, 09/2016 - 11:00
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 Thursday. Syria’s army battled to take more ground from rebels in Aleppo after President Bashar al-Assad said victory for his troops in the city would be a turning point in the war. - AFP/VNA Photo
Viet Nam News

ALEPPO, Syria - Syria’s army has halted its attacks in Aleppo to allow trapped civilians to be evacuated, Russia’s foreign minister said, after advancing forces cornered rebels in the city.

Immediately after the announcement, 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 on 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 on 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."

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 on 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".

There was no immediate reaction from Damascus.

’There has to be a pause’

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

On the strength of his army’s latest gains in territory of east Aleppo held by the rebels, Assad said in a newspaper interview on 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 per cent 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.

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."

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." - AFP