Heavy clashes erupted between regime and rebel forces in Syria’s divided city of Aleppo after a “humanitarian” ceasefire announced by government ally Russia expired before the UN could evacuate wounded civilians from rebel-held areas.
Moscow had extended the unilateral “humanitarian pause” into a third day until 1600 GMT Saturday but announced no further renewal, as fierce fighting broke in several areas along the front line dividing the city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
Three people were wounded by shelling of the rebel-held Salaheddin and Al-Mashhad districts, they said, adding that the first air strikes since the end of the truce hit the opposition-controlled district of Sheikh Saeed where there was also heavy fighting.
An AFP correspondent in rebel-held eastern districts also reported sounds of fighting and artillery fire.
Neither residents nor rebels of opposition-held districts heeded calls from Syria’s army and Moscow to leave during the ceasefire, after weeks of devastating bombardment and a three-month government siege.
The pause began on Thursday, and came after Moscow announced a temporary halt to the Syrian army’s campaign to recapture the divided city.
The army opened eight corridors for evacuations, but just a handful of people crossed through a single passage, with the others remaining deserted.
“Members of popular civil committees from regime districts entered the eastern neighbourhoods to try to evacuate the injured but failed,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said earlier Saturday.
Syrian state media and Russian authorities have accused rebels in the east of preventing civilians from leaving and using them as “human shields”.
Guarantees not received
More than 2,000 civilians have been wounded since the army launched its offensive to drive the rebels out of the eastern districts they have held since 2012. Nearly 500 people have been killed.
The United Nations had hoped to use the ceasefire to evacuate seriously wounded people, and possibly deliver aid.
But a UN official said Saturday the requisite security guarantees had not been received.
“You have various parties to the conflict and those with influence and they all have to be on the same page on this and they are not,” said David Swanson, a spokesman for the UN humanitarian office.
The UN had drawn up a four-day plan that was to start with two days of medical evacuations to west Aleppo, rebel-held Idlib province, and Turkey, and continue with more evacuations as well as aid deliveries.
No aid has entered Aleppo since July 7 and food rations will run out by the end of the month, UN chief Ban Ki-moon warned Thursday.
The UN had asked Moscow to consider extending the pause until Monday evening.
‘No third option’
Moscow accuses rebels of preventing civilians from leaving, with senior Russian military official Sergei Rudskoi accusing them of “using the ceasefire in their interests”.
“We are seeing them massing around Aleppo and preparing for another breakthrough into the city’s western neighbourhoods.”
Russia is a key ally of Syria’s government and began a military intervention in support of President Bashar al-Assad last September.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an interview set to air Saturday that the intervention was meant to “liberate” Syria and keep Assad in power.
“Either Assad is in Damascus, or Al-Nusra is,” he said, referring to former Al-Qaeda affiliate the Fateh al-Sham Front. “There is no third option here.”
The Observatory said earlier both rebels and regime forces appeared to be reinforcing their positions.
“The regime and the rebels are both bolstering their forces, which raises fears of a massive military operation if the ceasefire fails,” Abdel Rahman said.
Elsewhere in Aleppo province, Turkish forces and allied Syrian rebels were shelling the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces coalition in several villages.
Turkey considers the Kurdish militia that leads the SDF to be a “terrorist” organisation, and began an operation in Syria in August targeting both it and the Islamic State group.
On Friday, a UN human rights council resolution called for “a comprehensive, independent special inquiry into the events in Aleppo”.
It also demanded that warring parties provide unrestricted humanitarian access to desperate civilians and “end immediately all bombardments and military flights over Aleppo city”.
On Saturday, the White House condemned the Assad regime’s “defiance” of international norms after United Nations experts found the Syrian army had conducted three chemical weapons attacks against its own people in 2014 and 2015.
“The Syrian regime has violated the Chemical Weapons Convention and UN Security Council Resolution 2118 by using industrial chlorine as a weapon against its own people,” National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
The US is working to bring those responsible to account, he added.