Russia halts Aleppo air strikes in ‘goodwill gesture’ ahead of eight-hour truce

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 10:12am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 10:12am

Moscow has announced that Russian and Syrian air forces have stopped bombing Aleppo ahead of a brief truce, a move the Kremlin said showed “goodwill” as it faces mounting criticism for backing a brutal regime offensive.

It came a day after Russia said there would be an eight-hour “humanitarian pause” in the battered city on Thursday, a move welcomed by the United Nations and the European Union which nevertheless said the ceasefire needed to be longer to allow the delivery of aid.

The US State Department voiced scepticism regarding Moscow’s latest initiative while welcoming a halt in the bombing.

French and Russian presidents Francois Hollande and Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will hold a “working meeting” on the Syrian crisis Wednesday in Berlin, the French leader’s office said.

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The meeting will be aimed at “giving the same message to Vladimir Putin on Syria: a durable ceasefire in Aleppo and humanitarian access so that the devastation of this city can end,” an aide to Hollande said.

The West has expressed increasing alarm at the situation in Aleppo, saying the ferocious Russian-backed onslaught on the rebel-held east could amount to a war crime.

“Strikes in the Aleppo region by the Russian and Syrian air forces are stopping today from 10am,” Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a televised briefing on Tuesday .

“This guarantees the security of civilians’ exit through six corridors and prepares the evacuation of the sick and injured from eastern Aleppo,” he said, adding that it would also guarantee safe passage for rebels to leave the area.

The UN said it was waiting for safety assurances from all sides before going in with “critical humanitarian assistance” for Aleppo’s desperate population.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov hailed the halt as a “manifestation of goodwill by the Russian military” and denied it was meant to assuage Western critics who have accused Moscow of perpetrating potential war crimes in Syria’s second city.

US State Department spokesman John Kirby remained cautious about Moscow’s initiative.

“It’s a little too soon to tell how genuine this is and how long it’s going to last,” Kirby told CNN.

“We’ve seen these kinds of commitments and promises before. And we’ve seen them broken. We’re watching this very carefully.”

An AFP photographer in eastern Aleppo said air strikes in the rebel-held area had stopped following the Russian announcement. People in the city’s eastern neighbourhoods were out searching for food on Tuesday, the photographer saw.