Russia said the Syrian army was suspending fighting in Aleppo to allow for the evacuation of civilians from besieged rebel-held neighborhoods, but residents and rebels reported no let-up in bombing and shelling of the opposition’s ever-shrinking territory.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking in Germany after talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry, said military experts and diplomats would meet on Saturday in Geneva to work out details of a rebel exit from Aleppo’s eastern neighbourhoods, along with civilians who wanted to leave the city.
Aleppo, once Syria’s bustling commercial hub, has been largely divided between a government-held west and a rebel-controlled east since 2012. But government forces are now reported to be in control of about 75 percent of the east after a relentless three-week ground and air assault.
Lavrov said the Syrian army suspended combat late on Thursday to allow some 8,000 civilians to leave the city in a convoy spreading across a five-kilometre (three-mile) route.
But shortly after his announcement, residents told Al Jazeera that jets were still in the skies, gun fire could be heard and artillery shells were still falling on the remaining rebel-controlled districts in the southeast.
“The bombardment and shelling is … unbelievable. They are gaining areas every day. Until now the attacks are still ongoing in the city. Just half an hour ago there were two barrel-bomb attacks in Bustan al-Qasr … Warplanes are still in the skies,” said Zouhir al-Shimale, a journalist in east Aleppo.
The Syrian Civil Defence, a first responder group also known as the White Helmets, said air strikes and shelling on Thursday killed 45 people in the areas of east Aleppo still under rebel control. The group also reported the use of barrel bombs containing chlorine.
Although there are still many rural areas in rebel hands, Aleppo is their last major urban holdout. The prospect of its fall, following months of government gains elsewhere, has brought Assad closer to victory than at any point since the early months of a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands and made half of Syrians homeless.
“Aleppo will completely change the course of the battle in all of Syria,” the Syrian President Bashir al-Assad said, speaking in an interview with the Syrian newspaper al-Watan.
The UN General Assembly is set to vote on Friday on a draft resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire, a measure that diplomats have described as “too little, too late”.
Moscow and Washington are trying to negotiate a ceasefire to allow civilians to exit eastern Aleppo and aid to arrive.
Russia, which backs the army with bombing raids, also wants the US to use its influence to urge rebel fighters to abandon their territory and accept transport out, which the Syrian government has provided to fighters who agreed to lay down arms in other parts of the country.
The rebels have called for an immediate five-day ceasefire and the evacuation of civilians and wounded, but have so far given no indication they are ready to withdraw.
The UN assessment of the diplomatic back-and-forth was bleak. Russia and the US were “poles apart”, UN Syria humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said. Five months of talks over aid plans had all failed and produced “nothing,” he said.
More than 800 people have been killed and up to 3,500 wounded in eastern Aleppo in the past 26 days, while the remaining trapped civilians await an effective death sentence, the president of Aleppo local council said.
“Today 150,000 people are threatened with extermination. We are calling for a halt to the bombing and guarantees of safe passage of all,” Brita Haji Hassan said during a trip to Geneva.
‘War will not end’
Fighting raged on around the Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with the Syrian army trying to push into the few remaining rebel-held Aleppo neighbourhoods.
Pro-government media reported that Syrian government forces and their allies had launched attacks against rebels in the Sukkari, Kalasa and Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhoods, west and south of the ancient citadel.
An opposition activist in Aleppo said rebels had staved off the attacks on the latter two districts.
A Syrian military source said the army and its allies had also advanced in the Sheikh Saeed district in the south of the rebel enclave. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that relies on a network of activists on the ground to monitor the war, also reported that.
Outside of Aleppo, the government and its allies were also putting severe pressure on remaining rebel strongholds.
In the interview with al-Watan, Assad said the army advances would completely change the course of the war. He described Aleppo as the “last hope” of rebels and their backers, although he said the war would continue once it falls.
“The battle of Aleppo will be a gain, but … it doesn’t mean the end of the war in Syria,” he said.
Nearly 150 civilians, most disabled or in need of urgent medical care, were evacuated overnight from a hospital in Aleppo’s Old City, in the first major evacuation from the eastern sector, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.
It urged “all parties to allow a humanitarian pause,” adding that the situation in east Aleppo “is known to be catastrophic”.
Tawfik Chamaa, a representative of the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organisations, said 1,500 people needed medical evacuation, but any evacuation should have international observers to prevent them being “executed or diverted on the way to hospital”.