Russia, US step up war of words as Aleppo battle rages

Injured residents being rescued after an air strike on the rebel-held city of Idlib on Thursday. At least 11 civilians, including seven children, have died, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Injured residents being rescued after an air strike on the rebel-held city of Idlib on Thursday. At least 11 civilians, including seven children, have died, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

US demands return to ceasefire deal; Russia accuses US of abetting global terrorism

BEIRUT • Russia has escalated its anti-American invective in the deadlocked diplomacy over the Syrian war, dismissing a threat by US Secretary of State John Kerry to halt talks and accusing his spokesman of abetting global terrorism - including against Russian military personnel in Syria.

The Russian response came as United Nations officials warned that 600 wounded civilians in the rebel-held districts of the divided northern Syrian city of Aleppo must be evacuated and that food is nearly exhausted for the 275,000 residents trapped there. The residents have been pummelled for the past week by Syrian and Russian air strikes.

Syrian government forces and rebels waged fierce battles north of Aleppo yesterday, sources on both sides said, a week into a Russian-backed offensive by the Syrian army to take the entire city.

Syrian government forces had made a significant advance on Thursday north of Aleppo, capturing the Handarat refugee camp a few kilometres from the city.

But the sources gave conflicting reports on the outcome.

Lebanese Shi'ite group Hizbollah's Al Manar television said the Syrian army and its allies took full control of Handarat and the nearby Kindi Hospital area and continued to advance. But a senior rebel source denied that the government had captured the Kindi Hospital area, saying the battles were ongoing.

A water station was bombed in the Suleiman al-Halabi district, a further blow to a water system already badly damaged during the offensive. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights blamed government forces while the Syrian military said rebels had blown it up.

At least 11 civilians, including seven children, died during other attacks on the city of Idlib, south- west of Aleppo city, on Thursday, the Observatory said.

The top emergency relief official for the UN, Mr Stephen O'Brien, told the Security Council on Thursday that Aleppo faced a "humanitarian catastrophe unlike any we have witnessed in Syria".

The Russians, the main military allies of President Bashar al-Assad, offered 48-hour pauses in Aleppo to permit humanitarian access, an idea that Western diplomats and UN officials have rejected as impractical and meaningless.

Mr Kerry has demanded a return to the cessation of hostilities agreement he negotiated with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Sept 9, which collapsed a week later.

In some of his strongest criticism of Russia over the Syrian conflict, he said on Wednesday that unless the Syrians and Russians quit their barrage of Aleppo and restored the Sept 9 deal, the US would suspend talks and scrap a plan to work with Russia on targeting extremist militants in Syria that both powers regard as terrorist threats.

Russian officials not only rejected that warning, but also angrily denounced Mr Kerry's spokesman, Mr John Kirby, for having suggested that Russia's prosecution of the Syrian conflict would come back to haunt the Kremlin, leading to terrorist attacks on Russian targets and Russian soldiers returning home in "body bags".

The Kremlin's spokesman, Mr Dmitry Peskov, called Mr Kirby's remarks a "thinly disguised invitation to use terrorism as a weapon against Russia" and denounced what he called "the current American administration's de facto support for terrorism".

NYTIMES, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 01, 2016, with the headline 'Russia, US step up war of words as Aleppo battle rages'. Print Edition | Subscribe