Russia Says Aleppo Combat Suspended, Residents Say No Let-Up

BEIRUT (AP) -
Smoke rises near the Old City of Aleppo, as seen from a government-controlled area of the city, on Thursday. (Reuters/Omar Sanadiki)
Smoke rises near the Old City of Aleppo, as seen from a government-controlled area of the city, on Thursday. (Reuters/Omar Sanadiki)

Russia said the Syrian army was suspending combat operations in Aleppo late Thursday to allow for the evacuation of civilians from besieged rebel-held neighborhoods, but residents and fighters reported no let-up in the bombing and shelling campaign on the opposition’s ever-shrinking enclave.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, speaking in Germany after talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, said military experts and diplomats would meet Saturday in Geneva to work out details of the rebels’ exit from Aleppo’s eastern neighborhoods, along with civilians who were willing to leave the city.

Lavrov said the Syrian army suspended combat action late Thursday to allow some 8,000 civilians to leave the city in a convoy spreading across a three-mile route. However, opposition activists said there was no halt to the government offensive.

“Battles are intense,” said a message from a rebel operation room shared with The Associated Press. Other residents reported warplanes firing from machine guns at rebel positions and artillery shells falling in the remaining rebel-controlled districts.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said the U.S. was focused on de-escalating the violence in Aleppo to allow aid into the city and enable people wishing to stay in their homes to do so.

She said Kerry and Lavrov continued talks on Thursday with the goal of securing a cease-fire and the “safe departure of those who wish to leave the city.” She said details of Saturday’s U.S.-Russian technical discussions in Geneva were still being worked out.

Earlier, in Geneva, U.N. special adviser Jan Egeland said efforts to evacuate hundreds of wounded people from eastern Aleppo had stalled following a deadly attack this week on a Russian military hospital in government-controlled western Aleppo that left two Russian nurses dead and a doctor seriously wounded.

“It is with bitterness and frustration that we have to report that we have not been able even to evacuate the wounded,” Egeland said. “The member states that are supposed to help us get access to civilians in the cross-fire are poles apart in how they regard what is happening in Syria.”

He said Assad’s government had authorized U.N.-organized aid shipments into eastern Aleppo for the first time. However, he provided no details about how the aid might get in or where it would go, and past agreements have fallen through before any aid could be delivered.

On Thursday, opposition activists reported intensive bombing in the al-Sukkari and Kallaseh neighborhoods still under rebel control.

Al-Sukkari is in the southern part of eastern Aleppo, an area that has become home to the majority of the displaced civilians who stayed behind; Kallaseh is near the Old City. Footage by the Syrian military showed intensive shelling of Bustan al-Qasr, a frontline neighborhood that links the rebel-held eastern and government-controlled western parts of the divided city.

The International Committee for the Red Cross said that it had evacuated 148 disabled civilians and others in need of urgent care from a facility in Aleppo’s Old City after fighting calmed down there.

The evacuation, undertaken jointly with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, was completed late Wednesday, the Red Cross said in a statement. The people had been trapped in a facility that was originally a home for the elderly and included mentally and physically disabled patients, as well as injured civilians who had sought refuge there.

“They were forgotten,” said Pawel Krzysiek, the agency’s communication coordinator in Damascus. The evacuees were taken to a hospital and shelters in the western, government-held part of Aleppo.