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Russia halts Aleppo strikes ahead of brief truce

Moscow announced Tuesday that Russian and Syrian air forces have stopped bombing Aleppo ahead of a brief truce, a move the Kremlin said showed “goodwill” as it faces mounting criticism for backing a brutal regime offensive.

Russia had said Monday there would be an eight-hour “humanitarian pause” in the battered city on Thursday, a move welcomed by the United Nations and the European Union which nevertheless said the ceasefire needed to be longer to allow the delivery of aid.

The West has voiced increasing alarm at the situation in Aleppo, saying the ferocious Russian-backed onslaught on the rebel-held east could amount to a war crime.

“Strikes in the Aleppo region by the Russian and Syrian air forces are stopping today starting at 10:00 am,” Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a televised briefing, adding that the measure was “necessary” to pave the way for the truce.

“This guarantees the security of civilians’ exit through six corridors and prepares the evacuation of the sick and injured from eastern Aleppo,” he said, adding that it would also guarantee safe passage for armed rebels to leave eastern Aleppo.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov hailed the move as a “manifestation of goodwill” and denied it was meant to assuage Western critics who have accused Moscow of perpetrating potential war crimes in Syria’s second city.

“This is an obvious continuation of Russian efforts, on the one hand, to fight terrorists in Syria, and on the other, to unblock the situation in Aleppo,” Peskov told reporters.

“It is exclusively a manifestation of goodwill by the Russian military.”

Russia’s defence ministry said Monday that its forces and the Syrian regime — both accused of killing civilians in their bombing campaigns — would halt fire in Aleppo on Thursday for eight hours.

– Under siege –

Over 250,000 people are under government siege in the city that was once Syria’s thriving commercial hub.

Tuesday’s halt in bombing came just hours after Russian warplanes pounded the Aleppo’s rebel-held districts, killing a couple and their three children, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

On Monday, dozens of civilians including 12 members of the same family were killed in strikes against Aleppo’s rebel-held eastern sectors, the monitor said.

The brutal government offensive against eastern Aleppo — which has destroyed hospitals and other civilian infrastructure — has plunged Syria into some of the worst violence since the conflict erupted in March 2011.

The European Union said on Monday that the Russian and Syrian air strikes could amount to war crimes.

“The deliberate targeting of hospitals, medical personnel, schools and essential infrastructure, as well as the use of barrel bombs, cluster bombs, and chemical weapons, constitute a catastrophic escalation of the conflict… and may amount to war crimes,” EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg said.

They also warned that the 28-nation bloc could impose additional sanctions against Damascus but decided against targeting Russia despite US and British calls to punish Moscow as well.

Talks in Switzerland at the weekend involving foreign ministers from Washington, Moscow and Syria’s neighbours ended with no breakthrough on halting the violence.

The talks were the first international meeting on Syria since Washington froze bilateral ceasefire negotiations with Moscow over its unwavering support of the Syrian regime.

A short-lived truce brokered by Moscow and Washington last month could have led the two countries to coordinate strikes against jihadists, but the deal quickly unravelled.

Shoigu said Tuesday that the halt in bombing could “contribute to the success” of international military talks in Geneva on Wednesday on efforts to distance Syrian opposition fighters from jihadist group Fateh al-Sham Front, which changed its name from Al-Nusra Front after renouncing its ties to Al-Qaeda.

Russia has repeatedly demanded that the Syrian rebels break off from Fateh al-Sham Front, which the United Nations considers a terrorist group, as a condition to revive a ceasefire in Aleppo.