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Syrian military suspends Aleppo attacks

AAP logoAAP 8/12/2016

The Syrian military has suspended its attacks on militant-held eastern Aleppo to let civilians be evacuated to safety, says Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

About 8,000 civilians were leaving the embattled part of the city through a designated withdrawal route, Lavrov said in comments carried by state news agency TASS on Thursday.

Russia, a major backer of the ruling regime of President Bashar al-Assad, has said for weeks that its forces have not been involved in military actions over Aleppo.

The Syrian military has conducted a major offensive in recent days to take control of the entire city, parts of which have been in rebel control for years.

Representatives of Russia and the United States will meet on Saturday in Geneva to discuss the situation in Aleppo, Lavrov said after a meeting with his US counterpart John Kerry.

Russia has been pushing for Western-backed rebel groups to leave non-government-controlled areas in Aleppo as the Syrian army advances.

Russia has claimed that much of rebel-held Aleppo is controlled by fighters linked to the UN-designated terrorist organization al-Qaeda.

In Washington, US State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said that the US "can't confirm" that evacuations were under way in Aleppo, but added that "we would welcome anything that improves the lives" of those who have withstood weeks of bombardment.

She confirmed that Kerry and Lavrov spoke by phone on Thursday, and that discussions remained ongoing about holding technical talks with Russia in Geneva at the weekend.

"We have no knowledge of what Lavrov is speaking about," said Yasser al-Youssef, a spokesman of the regbel group Noureddine el-Zinki.

"Any move to evacuate civilians should be implemented with guarantees by the United Nations, and civilians should not be left as prey for al-Assad's forces and the Russians to be arrested or executed," al-Youssef said.

Nearly 500 civilians have been killed in both government-controlled and rebel-held Aleppo since the middle of November, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Thursday.

The monitoring group said that 384 civilians, including 45 children, were killed as a result of airstrikes and shelling by Syrian government forces and its allies against the rebel-held side of eastern Aleppo.

On the government-held side, 105 people, including 35 children, were killed by rebel shelling. The number of rebel fighters killed since November 15 is 309, according to the report.

The rebel enclave of the northern Syrian city has been shrinking dramatically in recent weeks, amid a quick advance by government forces and its allied militias, including the Lebanese Hezbollah movement.

The opposition is now confined to a small area, estimated to be just 20 per cent of the original territory it held in the city.

Six Western powers demanded on Wednesday an "immediate ceasefire" to bring aid into rebel-held Aleppo, warning "a humanitarian disaster" was unfolding and war crimes were being committed.

The Syrian government and allied Russia have indicated they would only accept a surrender by the embattled rebel forces, calling on them to agree to leave the territory.

UN Syria humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland has warned that the US and Russia must broker an evacuation as 150,000 people face "extermination".

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