BEIRUT: A Russia-declared unilateral ceasefire is to take hold in Syria’s Aleppo Friday even as rebels stepped up a week-old assault to break a government siege of the city’s eastern districts.
Regime ally Russia, which announced the 10-hour “humanitarian pause” on Wednesday, said it would start at 0700 GMT.
The pause is the second declared by Moscow in less than a month after a three-day ceasefire in late October failed to encourage civilians and rebels to leave rebel-held east Aleppo.
The October 20 pause followed a month-long Russia-backed army offensive to recapture the whole city that killed hundreds of civilians and hit health facilities, sparking international condemnation.
Once Syria’s economic powerhouse, Aleppo has been divided since mid-2012 between regime control in the west and rebels in the east.
The chief of Russia’s General Staff Valery Gerasimov said Friday’s pause was meant to “prevent senseless casualties” by allowing civilians and combatants out of east Aleppo.
But the United Nations has warned that “humanitarian operations cannot be contingent on political or military initiatives”.
Only a handful of people left east Aleppo during the October ceasefire, with Russia accusing rebels of preventing people from leaving and a UN plan to evacuate wounded people shelved over security concerns.
Rebels have been battling for nearly a week in a desperate bid to break the three-month siege but have so far been unable to push through government lines in western Aleppo.
The opposition forces on Thursday announced a new phase in their assault on government forces in the city’s western outskirts.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said the “most intense fighting” was on the edges of the Halab al-Jadida neighbourhood.
State media said at least 12 people were killed in rebel rocket and gunfire on Aleppo’s western neighbourhoods.
The Observatory put the toll at 15 dead, saying four children were among them, bringing to 69 the total number of civilians killed in rebel fire since Friday, including 23 children.
No aid has reached eastern Aleppo city’s more than 250,000 residents since early July, and there are reports of shortages and price hikes.
Aleppo lies at the crossroads of key routes, making it a strategic prize for both sides that would affect their relative bargaining power if UN-brokered peace negotiations ever resume.
The city and surrounding areas have suffered some of the heaviest fighting in Syria’s five-year civil war, which has now cost more than 300,000 lives.
The conflict has spiralled into a complex, multi-front war since it began in 2011 with the brutal repression of protests against Bashar al-Assad’s government.