Three Syrian opposition officials say outmatched rebels battling Russia-backed government forces in eastern Aleppo have received a U.S.-backed proposal to join with civilians in leaving the city, under safe passage guaranteed by Russia.
Reuters news agency reported the proposal late Sunday, saying rebel groups had not yet responded. The report further stated that Russia insisted no final deal had been reached.
If endorsed by all sides, the agreement would open the way for an end to four years of fighting in the once-vibrant northern city, and end nearly three months of devastating aerial and artillery bombardments by Russian and Syrian forces.
Such an agreement would also guarantee the safety of a vast Aleppo civilian population trapped since September by the fighting. At the height of the offensive, diplomats estimated 250,000 civilians under siege were cut off from critical humanitarian supplies, with many of them too afraid to flee.
There has been no U.S. comment on the recent surge in diplomatic activity or the Reuters report, both of which coincide with huge government military gains in the city’s eastern sector since rebel defenses were first breached two weeks ago.
Days after the offensive began, United Nations special envoy Staffan de Mistura told the U.N. General Assembly that rebels faced near-certain defeat in the city by the end of December unless a deal was reached.
Palmyra under IS control
Meanwhile, about 200 kilometers to the southeast, Islamic State jihadists were reported in full control of Palmyra and the city’s ancient ruins late Sunday, after four days of fighting outside the city.
Rami Abdel Rahman, who directs the British-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Palmyra’s modern city, including its airport, was under IS control, along with the ancient city and the historic castle that overlooks it.
An observatory statement also said the Syrian army withdrew Sunday to positions southwest of the city, after hours of intense fighting.
A Russian Defense Ministry statement said Russian warplanes conducted 64 air strikes against “positions, convoys and advancing reserves of militants” on the fabled desert city, which was placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1986.
The extremist push in Homs province comes nine months after militants were driven from the city by Syrian government forces and their Russian allies, in a counter-offensive touted at the time by Syrian military officials as a “fatal blow” to the jihadist organization.
Syria’s government-controlled news agency on Sunday acknowledged the fall of Palmyra, in a report that described an attack by a jihadist force of more than 4,000 fighters. The SANA report said the IS attack came from various directions, and said some of the many IS vehicles used to take the city were rigged with large quantities of explosives.