October 17, 2016 - 7:15 PM
BEIRUT - Russian and Syrian forces will halt hostilities for eight hours in the eastern districts of Aleppo, Russia's military announced on Monday, a day on which opposition activists said their airstrikes killed at least 36 people, including several children, in and around the divided city.
The two militaries will observe a "humanitarian pause" between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Oct. 20 to allow civilians and militants safe passage out of the city, Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi of Russia's general staff said in Moscow. Militants, the wounded and sick would be allowed to evacuate to the neighbouring rebel-held province of Idlib.
U.N. humanitarian officials have pleaded with combatants to observe weekly 48-hour cease-fires to allow humanitarian relief into the city's besieged eastern districts, but Russian and Syrian forces have only escalated their aerial and ground assault on the rebel-held areas in recent weeks. The airstrikes have claimed hundreds of lives, wounded many, flattened apartment buildings and laid waste to the already crippled medical sector.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York that the eight-hour pause was a unilateral halt to fighting. A 48-hour or 72-hour cease-fire "will require some sort of mutual arrangement," he said.
Russian and Syrian leaders are now capitalizing on a proposal made by the U.N.'s envoy earlier this month to allow al-Qaida-linked militants to leave in exchange for peace and local administration for the eastern districts.
Rebels in the east, along with many residents, spurned the proposition, citing their distrust of the government side. And Russia vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution mandating an immediate cease-fire.
Russia's Churkin said that at a meeting Saturday co-chaired by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, foreign ministers from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar said they would work to separate moderate opposition groups from the former al-Qaida affiliate once known as the Nusra Front in rebel-held eastern Aleppo.
Military experts from all these countries were scheduled to meet Monday, he said.
If the separation succeeds — which is a key Russian and Syrian demand — there are two options, Churkin said. Nusra fighters must leave Aleppo or they will be defeated, he said.
Churkin said "the understanding" reached at Saturday's meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, is that once Nusra is gone the moderate opposition and the Syrian government will agree on a cease-fire to end the bloodshed.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner, speaking to reporters in Washington, noted that the people of Aleppo "have been subjected to near constant bombardment and air strikes" that have killed many civilians and levelled much of the city's infrastructure in an effort "to starve out and to drive out the opposition and civilians."
"If there is actually an eight-hour pause in the unremitting suffering of the people of Aleppo, that would be a good thing. But frankly, it's a bit too little, too late," Toner said.
Monday's Russian announcement did not include any promises of an extended cease-fire or local administration. It followed a bloody day of airstrikes on rebel-held districts in and around Aleppo.
At least 23 people were killed in airstrike that also wounded dozens in the village of Oweijel, just west of Aleppo, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Another monitoring group, the Local Coordination Committees, said the air raid was carried out by Russian warplanes and put the death toll at 30.
More than a dozen people were also killed in the Marjeh neighbourhood in eastern Aleppo. The Aleppo Media Center, an activist collective, said those killed included 11 people with the same family name of Qabs ranging from a six-week-old baby girl to a 25-year-old man.
The Observatory said at least 50 civilians, including 18 children, were killed in airstrikes on the eastern part of the city in the 24 hours before the Russian announcement.
Monday's airstrikes coincided with the launch in neighbouring Iraq of a major operation by Iraqi and Kurdish forces, backed by the U.S.-led coalition, to retake the northern city of Mosul from the Islamic State group. There have been concerns the government in Damascus could use the timing of the Mosul offensive to press its onslaught in Aleppo while world attention is diverted to developments in Iraq.
Also Monday, Syrian state media claimed 49 rebels were killed and wounded in fighting in the neighbourhoods of Sheikh Saeed and Shurfa on the southern edges of Aleppo.
In the nearby province of Idlib, a U.S.-led coalition drone struck a car in the provincial capital that carries the same name, killing all inside, according to the Observatory and a jihadi official. It was not immediately clear who was in the vehicle, but such attacks have previously targeted officials with al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria, known as Fatah al-Sham Front.
The Observatory said the attack targeted a faction commander. An official with Fatah al-Sham Front, formerly known as Nusra Front, said all those in the car were "martyred." The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said it was not clear if members of his group were targeted.
Earlier this month, a drone attack killed top al-Qaida official Ahmed Salama Mabrouk.
The United States and Britain on Sunday acknowledged the Western world's weak support for any military action against Syria's government as they seek ways to pressure Syrian President Bashar Assad and his chief backer, Russia, to halt the deadly Aleppo offensive.
After a meeting of 11 governments opposing Assad's rule, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson each insisted that all options were on the table. But their stark explanations about the danger of resorting to military force appeared to rule out such a move.
The government in Damascus, meanwhile, appears to be trying to improve relations with Egypt, the Arab world's most populous nation, following the first public meeting between Egyptian and Syrian security chiefs.
Maj. Gen. Ali Mamlouk, head of the National Security Bureau and one of Assad's top aides, visited Cairo Sunday at the head of a delegation to co-ordinate with Egypt in the fight against "terrorism" in the region, Syria's state-run news agency SANA said.
SANA said the Syrians met with top intelligence officials, including deputy chief of Egypt's intelligence agency. It said both sides agreed on "co-ordinating political standpoints" and strengthening the "co-operation in fighting terrorism." Egypt's pro-government Sada al-Balad and other news websites reported on Sunday that six Syrians arrived on a private jet from Damascus.
Earlier this month, Egypt voted for rival French and Russian draft resolutions on Syria at the U.N. Security Council, arguing that both called for a truce and for aid for besieged Syrians in the rebel-held areas of the northern city of Aleppo.
The move angered Egypt's major financier Saudi Arabia, which supports rebels fighting against Assad's Moscow-backed government.
Egypt and Syria are both fighting extremists, including members of the Islamic State group. Both countries also have poor relations with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, James Heintz in Moscow, Philip Issa in Beirut and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
News from © The Associated Press, 2016