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Russia says alleged Aleppo airstrike pause to remain

BEIRUT - The Russian military said Tuesday the weeklong halt of Russian and Syrian airstrikes on the besieged city of Aleppo will continue and humanitarian corridors will remain open even as the Syrian army has unleashed a new offensive on the rebel-held neighborhoods.

The military’s claim comes one day after Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said Russia wasn’t planning another humanitarian pause in Aleppo anytime soon. 

Rebels have said that airstrikes on civilian areas have decreased since the announced pause, but the shelling and ground assault has not.

Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi of the military’s General Staff said Tuesday that Russian and Syrian warplanes have stayed six miles away from Aleppo for a week. He said that “the moratorium on Russian and Syrian airstrikes on the city will be extended.”

Last week, Russia also declared a three-day break in fighting intended to allow the evacuation of both militants and civilians from Aleppo’s rebel-held eastern part. The rebels rejected the Russian offer and the planned evacuation of civilians also failed.

Rudskoi accused the militants of preventing both civilians and the rebels willing to leave Aleppo from exiting the city.

While the Syrian army has resumed its offensive, Rudskoi said six humanitarian corridors have remained open and new breaks in fighting could be negotiated to evacuate civilians.

He added that the Russian military and local authorities helped evacuate 48 women and children from eastern Aleppo the previous evening.

Those evacuations could not be independently confirmed. The U.N. has estimated that 275,000 people are trapped by the Syrian government’s siege of the rebel-held eastern parts of the contested city.

“We are ready to introduce ‘humanitarian pauses’ in the future as well at first request, but we will only do that if we have reliable information about the ill, the wounded and civilians ready to leave,” Rudskoi said.

Fighting resumed in Aleppo over the weekend, with pro-government forces mounting several assaults along the city’s front lines after a three-day pause in military operations last week. The attacks have been accompanied by Russian air strikes on the outskirts.

But in contrast to the sweeping bombardment that devastated eastern Aleppo before the pause, clashes this week have been largely confined to the front lines, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group that tracks the civil war in Syria.

A spokesman for the local Civil Defense search-and-rescue group said airstrikes on residential districts have decreased since last Tuesday, when the Russian and Syrian militaries announced they would open safe corridors for civilians and militants out of the east. The spokesman, Ibrahim al-Haj, noted that shelling has not let up.

On Monday, pro-government forces seized a strategic hilltop overlooking the city’s southern outskirts, only hours after Aleppo rebels boasted an offensive to break the government’s siege was “hours away”.

The government’s new position on the Bazo hilltop would complicate any rebel push, according to the Observatory’s chief, Rami Abdurrahman.

Ammar Sakkar, a military spokesman of the powerful Fastaqim rebel militia in Aleppo, denied the government advance was a setback for rebels and said huge preparations were underway for an “epic” battle in Aleppo.

Also, the Observatory and Aleppo’s Civil Defense team said three people were killed in air raids in Uram al-Kubra, a town west of Aleppo. The Observatory said there were other air raids in southern and western Aleppo province. There were no reports of casualties.

NATO, meanwhile, said the alliance launched surveillance flights along Turkey’s border with Syria and Iraq to support the international coalition effort against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS.)

NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels on Tuesday that the first flight took place on Oct. 20 and that more would happen soon. The flyovers will help the coalition “to get a better air picture,” he said.

The surveillance planes, which are being moved to Turkey from Germany, will help identify aircraft in northern Syria and Iraq and prevent accidents in war-plane filled skies. ISIS and its allies have no aircraft.

The U.S. has said it has evidence that Russian warplanes attacked an aid convoy in Syria last month. Russia has denied the allegations and said a U.S. drone might have done it.

Meanwhile, NATO member Turkey, which has been supporting Syrian opposition forces in their push in northern Syria, carried out airstrikes last week against Kurdish positions in northwestern Aleppo, as they too jostle for territory held by ISIS in the area.

On Tuesday, a Kurdish leader and news agency say Turkish shelling of the areas continued but there were no reports of new air raids. The Turkish-Kurdish violence in Syria raised tensions in the area. Activists have reported a military buildup for rival groups in the area in recent days, including around Manbij, where Kurdish forces expelled ISIS fighters this summer.

Ilham Ahmed, a Syrian Kurdish leader in exile, said Turkish shelling of villages in northwestern Aleppo province was backed by reconnaissance planes.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency, quoting military officials, said Turkish artillery fired at 75 ISIS and 15 Syrian Kurdish militia targets. No aerial raids were conducted.

The Observatory said Turkey-backed fighting groups took control of two villages to the east, closer to ISIS stronghold al-Bab.

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