Syria announces surprise easing of Aleppo assault

A Syrian man walks past a bus set ablaze following a reported air strike in the rebel-held Salaheddin district of Aleppo on Sept 25, 2016.
A Syrian man walks past a bus set ablaze following a reported air strike in the rebel-held Salaheddin district of Aleppo on Sept 25, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

DAMASCUS (AFP) - Syria's military on Wednesday (Oct 5) announced a surprise reduction in bombardment of rebel groups in devastated Aleppo, nearly two weeks after declaring an all-out assault to capture the city.

Aleppo city was once Syria's thriving commercial hub, but it now lies divided between rebels in the east and regime forces in the west.

Syria's government announced a large-scale offensive to capture the whole city on Sept 22, ushering in a ferocious bombing campaign on opposition-held quarters.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 270 people, including 53 children, had been killed in air raids on the eastern districts since the assault began.


But on Wednesday, Syria's military said it would reduce the bombardment "after the success of our armed forces in Aleppo and cutting off all terrorist supply routes into the eastern districts".

"The military command has decided to reduce the number of air strikes and artillery on terrorist positions to allow civilians that want to leave to reach safe areas," the statement carried by news agency SANA said.

It was not immediately clear what was behind the move, or if Russian air strikes would also be reduced.

Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have been waging their offensive in the city centre, the northern outskirts, and the southern edges of Aleppo with the backing of Russian air power.

But the onslaught has come under fierce international scrutiny amid accusations the joint air strikes were destroying the east's civilian infrastructure.

On Monday, bombardment destroyed the largest hospital in rebel-held quarters, where an estimated 250,000 people live under government siege.

Hours later, the US announced it would suspend bilateral efforts with Moscow at reviving a ceasefire, accusing Russia of trying to bomb Syrian civilians "into submission".

Moscow and Washington's top diplomats had been working together since early this year to reach a diplomatic solution to Syria's bloodshed, which has killed more than 300,000 people since 2011.

An agreement in September had envisioned an end to hostilities, increased aid deliveries, and eventual coordination between the two world powers against jihadists - but it collapsed after a week.

Since then, France has stepped into the diplomatic vacuum with a draft United Nations resolution on a ceasefire in Aleppo that it will submit to the Security Council this week.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault will travel to Moscow on Thursday and Washington on Friday to try to garner support for the draft, his office said.

The resolution is aimed at "paving the way to a ceasefire in Aleppo and for the local population to gain access to the humanitarian aid it so needs," the foreign ministry said.

It calls for aid deliveries to the city's east and the grounding of all Syrian and Russian planes in that area.

The city's eastern half was officially declared a "besieged area" by the United Nations on Wednesday, after months of fierce fighting and lack of access for aid workers.

The designation would bring the estimated number of besieged people across Syria to over 850,000, according to UN figures.

The United Nations on Wednesday also concluded an air strike was responsible for the devastating attack on an aid convoy in northern Syria last month that killed nearly 20 people.

Lars Bromley, a researcher at the UN's satellite collection and analysis agency, said his group's analysis "determined it was an air strike".

US officials have said Russian planes carried out the air strikes on September 19 that hit the 31-truck convoy bringing aid to a town west of Aleppo.

Moscow has denied the accusation, and the Russian military is carrying out its own investigation of the bombing, which destroyed 18 trucks and damaged a warehouse.

Russia and the US back opposing sides of Syria's war, with Washington lending support to some rebel groups and Moscow bolstering Assad both militarily and diplomatically.

Both countries are waging separate bombing campaigns against jihadist groups in Syria.

On Wednesday, unidentified raids on a northern village held by the Islamic State group killed 19 civilians including three children, according to the Observatory.

The monitor said it was unclear whether the strike on the village of Thalthana was carried out by the US-led coalition fighting ISIS, or Turkey, which is leading an operation against ISIS territory nearby.