ALEPPO, Syria — Syria’s army on Thursday halted its attacks in Aleppo to allow for trapped civilians to be evacuated, Russia’s foreign minister announced, after advancing regime forces cornered rebels in the city.
“I can tell you that today combat operations by the Syrian army have been halted in eastern Aleppo because there is a large operation underway to evacuate civilians,” said Sergei Lavrov.
“There is going to be to a column of 8,000 evacuees” travelling five kilometres (three miles), Lavrov said after talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry in the German city of Hamburg.
In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Lavrov’s announcement was “an indication that something positive could happen”.
A senior State Department official said Lavrov and Kerry spoke again by phone late Thursday and “agreed to continuing having discussions about establishing a framework for a ceasefire”.
There was no immediate reaction from Damascus, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said the fighting had eased.
Air strikes ceased and artillery fire was far less intense, according to an AFP correspondent in east Aleppo.
Moscow is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad and launched an air war in support of his forces last year, while Washington and other Western nations have supported rebel forces.
Russia this week suggested a deal was in the works for rebels to be allowed to withdraw from Aleppo to other opposition-held territory.
On the strength of his army’s latest gains in territory of east Aleppo held by the rebels, Assad said in a newspaper interview Thursday that victory for his troops would be a turning point in Syria’s five-year war.
Three weeks into a major offensive to retake all of Aleppo, government troops have captured about 85 percent of territory rebels controlled in the city’s east.
AFP correspondents in the city said rebel areas faced intense bombardment on Thursday before Lavrov’s announcement.
Cornered in a shrinking enclave in Aleppo’s southeast, the rebels have asked for a five-day ceasefire.
Western countries have backed the call, and Kerry and Lavrov held talks on Thursday for a second straight day in an effort to halt the bloodshed.
Assad predicts victory
The UN renewed its call for an immediate ceasefire in Aleppo, warning that as many as 500 sick and injured children desperately needed to be evacuated.
“There has to be a pause,” said Jan Egeland, head of the UN-backed humanitarian taskforce for Syria.
“At the moment, those who… try to escape are caught in crossfire, they are caught in shelling, (and) risk being hit by snipers.”
In his interview with Syrian daily Al-Watan, Assad predicted victory for his forces in Aleppo, though he admitted that would not end the country’s conflict entirely.
“It’s true that Aleppo will be a win for us,” Assad said.
“Let’s be realistic — it won’t mean the end of the war in Syria,” he said. “But it will be a huge step towards this end.”
Rebels seized control of large parts of Aleppo in 2012, dividing Syria’s former commercial hub into an opposition-held east and government-controlled west.
For years Aleppo was a key battleground and important rebel stronghold, but Assad’s forces have recently made a concerted push to retake the city.
In the last week government forces steadily gained ground until on Wednesday — after a highly symbolic retreat from the Old City — the rebels called for the ceasefire to allow thousands of civilians to evacuate.
Assad’s government has said a truce is only possible after a full rebel withdrawal, and opposition fighters have rejected any talk of abandoning Aleppo.
On Thursday the army, backed by fighters from Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, continued to advance, said the Observatory.
The monitor had reported heavy clashes in several rebel neighbourhoods, including Bustan al-Qasr, Saif al-Dawla, Zibdiya, Sukkari and Kallaseh.
All rebel areas had been under heavy bombardment, it said, with opposition forces returning fire with rockets into government-controlled west Aleppo.
At least 384 civilians have been killed in east Aleppo during the offensive, while rebel fire into the west has killed at least 105 people, the Observatory says.
Red Cross evacuates civilians
The assault has prompted a mass exodus from east Aleppo where at least 80,000 people have fled their homes, according to the monitor.
On Thursday, hundreds of families, most of them from the Salhine district, arrived in Aziza, a southeastern suburb of Aleppo, after the latest rebel defeats.
“I feel reborn,” said Yasser, a 40-year-old father of four as he tugged at a cart stacked with luggage atop of which sat his ailing mother.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it carried out an operation on Wednesday night with Syria’s Red Crescent to evacuate 150 civilians, many disabled or sick, from a health facility in the Old City.
It was unclear how many civilians remained in rebel territory, but there were an estimated 250,000 in east Aleppo prior to the latest offensive.
An appeal also came from the White Helmets rescue group for international organisations to protect its members in rebel-held parts of east Aleppo.
“If we are not evacuated, our volunteers face torture and execution in the regime’s detention centres,” they said in a statement.