Russia announces aid operation for Syria’s battered Aleppo
Syria ally Russia announced a "large-scale" aid operation Thursday for trapped civilians and opposition fighters fleeing the embattled northern city of Aleppo, as President Bashar al-Assad offered an amnesty to rebels who surrender.
Pro-government forces effectively surround opposition neighbourhoods of the divided city, sparking fears for at least 200,000 people trapped there.
Residents have reported food shortages and spiralling prices in rebel districts since regime forces cut off the opposition’s main supply route into the city earlier this month.
Russian defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told reporters that three humanitarian corridors were being opened “to aid civilians held hostage by terrorists and for fighters wishing to lay down their arms” and one more corridor to the north of the city for rebels to flee with their weapons.
Medical posts and food handouts would be provided along the routes intended for civilians and fighters who surrender, Shoigu said.
In a parallel move, Assad on Thursday issued a rare presidential decree offering amnesty to armed rebels who give themselves up in the next three months, the official SANA news agency reported.
“Everyone carrying arms… and sought by justice… is excluded from full punishment if they hand themselves in and lay down their weapons,” SANA said, adding the reprieve would also include any rebel who freed a hostage.
State television announced “the opening of three passages to allow citizens out of eastern districts” of Aleppo, adding that “everything was ready to receive them in temporary installations”.
But an AFP correspondent who went to see one of the corridors said that it remained closed and saw no movement of residents nearby.
Regime planes on Thursday dropped flyers showing a map with the location of these humanitarian passages, he said.
– Regime advance –
Once an economic hub, Aleppo and surrounding countryside has suffered some of the worst fighting in the five-year conflict that has killed more than 280,000 people.
It has been roughly divided into a regime-controlled west and a rebel-held east since July 2012.
Analysts say that the rebels losing Aleppo would be a major blow to the opposition and signal a turning point in the conflict, which began in 2011 with the brutal crackdown of anti-government protests.
Syrian government forces on Thursday seized a neighbourhood on the northern outskirts of Aleppo, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, further tightening their siege on rebel areas of the city.
Pro-Assad forces took control of Bani Zeid after heavy fighting overnight backed by Syrian and Russian airstrikes, the Britain-based monitor said, two days after they seized the nearby neighbourhood of Leramun.
Assad has issued several amnesties in recent years, including one in July 2015 for people who have dodged service or defected from the army.
His latest comes after Syria’s UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said this week he hopes peace talks could resume at the end of August towards ending the war.
Human Rights Watch meanwhile on Thursday accused Assad’s regime and Russia of extensively using banned cluster munitions against the rebels since late May.
The New York-based watchdog said it had documented 47 cluster munition attacks that killed and injured dozens of civilians in rebel-held areas in three provinces since May 27, many north and west of Aleppo.
Widely banned, cluster munitions contain dozens or hundreds of bomblets and are fired in rockets or dropped from the air.
They spread explosives over large areas and are indiscriminate in nature, often continuing to maim and kill long after the initial attack when previously unexploded bomblets detonate.