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Syria army urges residents to quit Aleppo as ceasefire begins

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.

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.

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.

– ‘Goodwill gesture’ –

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.

An AFP photographer in government-held west Aleppo said eight injured people had crossed via the Bustan al-Qasr crossing despite the fighting.

But AFP correspondents in the east visited four crossing points and saw no movement through them.

Yasser Youssef of the Nureddine al-Zinki rebel group said opposition fighters wanted “nothing to do” with the Russian initiative.

“Who are they to decide to displace the Syrian people who rebelled against the dictator Assad?” he asked.

– Afraid to leave –

Some civilians interviewed by AFP 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.

Amnesty International meanwhile denounced the temporary truce as “woefully inadequate” and urged the UN General Assembly to act to ensure an end to the siege of Aleppo and attacks on civilians.

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.

He said Moscow had agreed to extend the truce through Saturday but there was no confirmation from Russia.

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, according to a draft summit statement obtained by AFP.

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.

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May urged a “robust and united” European approach to Russian “atrocities” in Syria.