Syrian government forces press attack in east Aleppo

A member of Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Asaad is seen atop of an armoured vehicle in a government held area of Aleppo, Syria December 9, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki


But there was no sign of any such truce inside Aleppo.

“There are aerial raids on the city’s neighborhoods with highly explosive incendiary bombs, barrel bombs and artillery shelling,” a fighter with the Nour al-Din al-Zinki rebel group on an eastern Aleppo frontline told Reuters.

In Old Aleppo, newly recaptured by the government, there was widespread destruction in the UNESCO World Heritage Site, with fire-damaged ancient buildings, structures reduced to rubble and spent ordnance everywhere.

At the side of a road sat a woman in her late 20s, veiled, dressed in black, and weeping as she cradled her baby.

“My son was born after three months of siege. There were no hospitals, no diapers, no milk,” she said. “My milk is dry from fear and panic.”

Dozens of displaced civilians, including children, had gathered in the road with their belongings after fleeing the Saliheen district, where battles continued.

Maher Tashtash, aged nine, said the bombardment had been frightening and rebels had told them they faced death if caught by the army. His brother Mohammed, 12, said they had hidden in a cellar until the fighting passed.

Even the dead were not spared the carnage. In the Dar al-Islam cemetery near Ibn Sina street in al-Hamdaniya, graves were destroyed. People were burying corpses in open public ground.

The United Nations estimates about 100,000 people are now squeezed into an “ever shrinking” rebel-held pocket of Aleppo with virtually no access to food, water or medical care.

In rebel-held Aleppo, a Reuters journalist said there were intense clashes on Friday in Sheikh Saeed district in the south of the eastern sector, where the Observatory and a Syrian military source said government forces advanced on Thursday.

Fighting also took place northeast of Aleppo, where Turkey has intervened to support rebels against both Islamic State fighters and Kurdish groups. Turkish-backed rebels closed in on the Islamic State-held city of al-Bab with Turkish tanks and warplanes supporting the assault, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said.

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Moscow and Washington have discussed a ceasefire to let civilians escape eastern Aleppo and aid enter. Russia also wants the United States to urge rebel fighters to abandon their territory and accept transport out.

U.N. envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura told the Security Council on Thursday there were signs fighters in Aleppo may want to leave and the council should help them go, diplomats said.

The Syrian government said on Friday it was ready to resume dialogue with the opposition, without external intervention or preconditions. Rebels said no such contacts were taking place.

“There are no negotiations now, except what’s being discussed internationally,” said Zakaria Malahifji, head of the political office of the Aleppo-based Fastaqim rebel group, speaking from Turkey. “We have asked for the evacuation of civilians who want to leave and of the injured. The fighters are determined to stay and face things.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday U.S. and Russian officials would meet in Geneva on Saturday to discuss Aleppo.

“We are working hard … to see if we can find a way in the name of humanity and decency to be able to protect those lives and try to separate combatants and move the process forward,” Kerry said at the U.S. embassy in Paris, according to a State Department statement.

But even Kerry, who has invested months of intensive diplomacy on Syria, acknowledged the exasperation many feel.

“I know people are tired of these meetings. I’m tired of these meetings. And people are sort of, ‘Oh, another meeting. Okay. This one will end the same way the other one did.’ I get it, folks. I’m not born yesterday. But what am I supposed to do? Go home and have a nice weekend in Massachusetts while people are dying?”

“What is happening in Aleppo is the worst catastrophe – what’s happening in Syria is the worst catastrophe since World War Two itself. It’s unacceptable. It’s horrible.”

The U.N. General Assembly voted 122 to 13 on Friday to demand an immediate cessation of hostilities in Syria, humanitarian aid access throughout the country and an end to all sieges, including in Aleppo. General Assembly resolutions are non-binding but can carry political weight.

The U.N. human rights office said hundreds of men from eastern Aleppo were missing after leaving rebel-held areas, voicing deep concern over their fate at the hands of government forces.

The government has dismissed reports of mass arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings by its forces as fabrications. Rebels for their part deny they have prevented civilians from leaving opposition-controlled areas.