ALEPPO: A “humanitarian pause” in the Syrian army’s Russian-backed assault on Aleppo took effect Thursday, but despite a drop in violence there was little sign residents were heeding calls to leave.
Moscow said the truce would be extended by 24 hours, and the UN said it hoped to carry out the first medical evacuations from Aleppo on Friday, after getting clearance from all warring parties.
Despite the lull, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg expressed concern that a Russian aircraft carrier battlegroup, on its way from the North Sea and currently off the coast of Britain, could join attacks on Aleppo.
The unilateral ceasefire began at 8:00 am (0500 GMT) with the aim of allowing civilians and fighters to evacuate the city’s opposition-controlled east.
Shortly after the pause began, gunfire and artillery exchanges erupted around one crossing point, with state news agency SANA saying “terrorist groups” had targeted the area “in an attempt to hinder the humanitarian pause”.
But by afternoon, the clashes had subsided and the east was calm, though the streets were empty.
The truce was initially described as lasting just 11 hours, but Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced Thursday afternoon it would be extended.
“A decision was made to extend the ‘humanitarian pause’ by 24 hours,” he said in a statement, leaving unclear exactly when the truce was now scheduled to end.
He also announced that the Admiral Kuznetsov carrier, part of its Northern Fleet, would be sent to the eastern Mediterranean to boost Russian naval forces in the area.
Reacting to the deployment, Stoltenberg said: “We are concerned Russia’s carrier group will support military operations in Syria in ways which increase human and civilian suffering.
Around Aleppo on Thursday, Syrian soldiers were calling through loudspeakers for residents to “seize the chance” to evacuate.
Russia announced the ceasefire earlier this week, amid growing international pressure over its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s campaign to recapture the city.
More than 300,000 people have been killed since Syria’s conflict began in March 2011, and the violence in Aleppo has been described as some of the worst of the war.
Russia says the pause is a “goodwill gesture” but rebel groups have said they will not abandon their posts and many civilians fear falling into the hands of the regime forces that surround Aleppo.
More than 250,000 civilians have been trapped in the rebel-held east of the city under near-continuous siege since mid-July.
The Syrian army has said it is opening eight corridors for civilians to leave, two of which can also be used by rebel fighters provided they leave behind their weapons.
The Russian defence ministry was streaming live video from several of the corridors, showing waiting ambulances and buses along empty roads.
Some civilians said they were eager to leave but wanted more reassurance they would be safe. “I don’t want to risk my life or my family’s by being among the first to leave,” said Mohammed Shayah, an unemployed father of four.
More than 2,000 people have been wounded since the army launched a new offensive last month aiming to take the entire city, according to the United Nations. Some 400 have been killed.
The UN’s humanitarian taskforce chief Jan Egeland said Thursday that Russia, the Syrian government and rebels had given permission for medical evacuations from Aleppo to start on Friday.
“We hope that the first medical evacuations can take place tomorrow,” he said, adding that the UN hoped to also deliver food to the besieged east.
The civilian toll in Aleppo has drawn international condemnation, with Washington saying the bombardment could amount to a war crime.
Moscow has dismissed the accusation as propaganda and demanded that rebels break ranks with the former Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Fateh al-Sham Front.
In Brussels on Thursday, EU leaders were weighing sanctions against supporters of Assad’s regime. EU President Donald Tusk said the organisation should keep all options open in dealing with Russia, “including sanctions,” if it continues its “crimes” in Aleppo.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, for his part, condemned air strikes on two centres of White Helmet volunteers in the northern province of Idlib that had killed a civil defence worker and wounded several others.