Heavy clashes erupted between regime and rebel forces in Syria’s divided city of Aleppo after a “humanitarian” ceasefire announced by government ally Russia expired before the UN could evacuate wounded civilians from rebel-held areas.
Moscow had extended the unilateral “humanitarian pause” into a third day on Saturday but announced no further renewal, as fierce fighting broke in several areas along the front line dividing the city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
Three people were wounded by shelling of the rebel-held Salaheddin and al-Mashhad districts, they said, adding that the first airstrikes since the end of the truce hit the opposition-controlled district of Sheikh Saeed where there was also heavy fighting.
Neither residents nor rebels of opposition-held districts heeded calls from Syria’s army and Moscow to leave during the ceasefire, after weeks of devastating bombardment and a three-month government siege.
The pause began on Thursday, and came after Moscow announced a temporary halt to the Syrian army’s campaign to recapture the divided city.
The army opened eight corridors for evacuations, but just a handful of people crossed through a single passage, with the others remaining deserted.
“Members of popular civil committees from regime districts entered the eastern neighborhoods to try to evacuate the injured but failed,” observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said on Saturday.
Syrian state media and Russian authorities have accused rebels in the east of preventing civilians from leaving and using them as “human shields.”
The UN had hoped to use the ceasefire to evacuate seriously wounded people and possibly deliver aid.
However, a UN official on Saturday said the requisite security guarantees had not been received.
“You have various parties to the conflict and those with influence and they all have to be on the same page on this and they are not,” UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs spokesman David Swanson said.
The UN had drawn up a four-day plan that was to start with two days of medical evacuations to west Aleppo, rebel-held Idlib Province, as well as Turkey, and to continue with more evacuations and aid deliveries.
No aid has entered Aleppo since July 7 and food rations will run out by the end of the month, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Thursday.
The UN had asked Moscow to consider extending the pause until tomorrow evening.
Moscow accuses rebels of preventing civilians from leaving, with Russian General Sergei Rudskoi accusing them of “using the ceasefire in their interests.”
“We are seeing them massing around Aleppo and preparing for another breakthrough into the city’s western neighborhoods,” he said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an interview that the intervention was meant to “liberate” Syria and keep al-Assad in power.
“Either [al-]Assad is in Damascus, or al-Nusra [front] is,” he said, referring to former al-Qaeda affiliate the Fateh al-Sham Front. “There is no third option here.”
The observatory said earlier both rebels and regime forces appeared to be reinforcing their positions.
“The regime and the rebels are both bolstering their forces, which raises fears of a massive military operation if the ceasefire fails,” Abdel Rahman said.
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