MOSCOW • Moscow yesterday announced that Russian and Syrian air forces have stopped bombing Aleppo ahead of a brief truce, a move that the Kremlin said showed "goodwill" as it faces mounting criticism for backing a brutal regime offensive.
Russia's move comes as President Vladimir Putin and leaders of Germany, France and Ukraine meet in Berlin today to discuss the stalled Minsk peace plan to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said yesterday she and French President Francois Hollande would also confront Mr Putin over Syria in the meeting.
Russia had said on Monday that there would be an eight-hour "humanitarian pause" in Aleppo tomorrow, a move welcomed by the United Nations (UN) and the European Union which nevertheless said the ceasefire needed to be longer to allow the delivery of aid.
The UN said yesterday that it was waiting for safety assurances from all sides before going in with "critical humanitarian assistance" for Aleppo's desperate population.
The US Department also voiced scepticism yesterday over the temporary ceasefire. "It's a little too soon to tell how genuine this is and how long it's going to last," its spokesman John Kirby told CNN.
The West has voiced 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, starting at 10am," Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a televised briefing, adding the measure was "necessary" to pave the way for the truce.
"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 armed rebels to leave eastern Aleppo.
But the rebels yesterday rejected any withdrawal of fighters from Aleppo. "The factions completely reject any exit - this is surrender," said political officer Zakaria Malahifji of the Aleppo-based Fastaqim group.
Still, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov hailed the move to suspend bombing as a "manifestation of goodwill" and denied it was meant to assuage Western critics who have accused Moscow of perpetrating potential war crimes in Syria's second city.
"This is an obvious continuation of Russian efforts, on the one hand, to fight terrorists in Syria and, on the other, to unblock the situation in Aleppo," he told reporters.
Raids in the eastern neighbourhoods of Aleppo have stopped since the Russian announcement, but air strikes are still being conducted in the broader Aleppo region, Britain-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said yesterday.
More than 250,000 people are under government siege in the city that was once Syria's thriving commercial hub.
Meanwhile, the wife of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad said in an interview that her husband's foes had offered her the chance to flee Syria in order to try to shake confidence in him, but that she had not left the country since the war erupted.
"I've been here since the beginning and I never thought of being anywhere else at all," the 41-year- old mother of three told Rossiya 24 in an interview broadcast yesterday.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS