Relative calm as humanitarian pause begins in Syria’s Aleppo

Mideast Syria
This frame grab from video provided by this militant video by Fatah al-Sham Front that is consistent with independent AP reporting, shows black smoke rises from a suicide bomb attacked Syrian government forces positions, in western Aleppo, Syria, Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict through local contacts, reported that rebels attacked government positions with two explosives-laden vehicles. Syrian rebels launched a fresh wave of attacks on western districts of Aleppo Thursday as airstrikes on a rebel-held village south of the contested city killed civilians, activists said. (militant video by Fatah al-Sham Front, via AP)

BEIRUT (AP) — A temporary halt in fighting announced by Russia to allow Syrian rebels and residents to leave the besieged eastern parts of Aleppo went into effect on Friday, with activists reporting a relative calm in the city.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that during the early hours of the 10-hour “humanitarian pause”, it recorded no major military action by Syrian and allied forces or by the opposition fighters.

Syrian state TV showed footage from one of the designated corridors with buses parked to transport anyone coming out of eastern Aleppo. Police and Islamic cleric were waiting at the crossing.

By midday, however, the Observatory said no one had used the corridors. The U.N. estimates that 275,000 people are trapped in the eastern, rebel-held part of the divided city of Aleppo.

A rebel spokesman, Yasser al-Youssef from the Nour el-Din el-Zinki group, and an eastern Aleppo resident, Wissam Zarqa, said warplanes were flying over the area. Al-Youssef also said that planes warplanes continued to target rebels supply lines in western Aleppo province.

The Qasioun news agency reported that the planes fired missiles on the towns of Urem al-Kubra and Kfar Naha in western Aleppo, wounding several people.

Russia’s offer of a 10-hour “humanitarian pause,” announced earlier this week, has raised speculations that a major offensive may be planned once the pause expires on Friday evening.

Overnight, leaflets from the Syrian Armed Forces were dropped over eastern Aleppo, a recurrent practice during previous pauses, urging residents and rebels to take advantage of the pause that started at 9 a.m. and leave the city. Activists posted online one such leaflet, which gives instructions to the residents on how to leave the area safely, hands raised.

There has been no official word from Russia on what would happen once the humanitarian pause expires. Last month, pauses expired with no resumption of airstrikes, which Russia said it halted on the eastern side of the city. Later, residents reported airstrikes on the front line with western Aleppo.

A Russia lawmaker on Thursday told the private Russian news agency Interfax that a “purge” of the eastern part of the city would begin if the pause produced no results. Russian President Vladimir Putin urged the opposition fighters to use the passages offered to leave the city.

Russia recently dispatched its aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, which is now in the Mediterranean and heading for the Syrian coast. Its presence suggests that Russia may be intending to escalate its assault on rebel-held parts of the northern Syrian city.

Al-Youssef said the opposition fighters are anticipating a “violent air campaign” on the eastern part of the city when the pause expires.

“The Russians are exerting more pressure on the rebellious people of Aleppo to get them out of the city,” al-Youssef told The Associated Press in an exchange of messages. “This will not happen. Absolutely.”

The pause comes amid a rebel offensive on the western, government-held part of the city, which began last week. Western Aleppo is home to more than 1 million residents, including people displaced from eastern Aleppo. A lobby of missiles on that part of the city killed 12 civilians on Thursday, state media said.

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