Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov denied allegations that Russia and Syria are preparing to storm Syria's Aleppo after clearing civilians out of the city under the guise of a humanitarian operation.
U.S. officials and Syrian rebel groups have suggested Russia's and Syria's creation on July 28 of so-called "safe corridors" where they have invited an estimated 250,000 civilians trapped amidst fighting to evacuate may be part of a plan to depopulate the city so that the Syrian army, which has surrounded and besieged the city, can seize it.
"I categorically deny the allegation that some storm is being prepared," Ryabkov told Interfax late on July 29.
"Our American partners, due to their own stagnancy and suspiciousness toward Russia, are beginning to attribute some nonexistent designs to us. We cannot accept that things should be formulated this way. We are pursuing the ends that have been declared - not more but not less," he said.
Some U.S. officials have agreed with assertions by Syrian rebel groups that the so-called safe zones, which Aleppo's besieged civilians so far have largely avoided, will not be used to provide humanitarian aid and a safe route out, but rather to cleanse the area so government forces can capture it.
They point out, moreover, that with momentum in the war on the side of Syria and Russia, capturing the biggest remaining rebel stronghold in Aleppo would provide them with a potentially decisive victory.
"The world must not allow Russia to get away with disguising its assault on Aleppo with deceitful talk about humanitarian 'corridors'," said Bassma Kodmani, a member of the High Negotiations Committee, Syria's main opposition group.
"Be clear - these 'corridors' are not for getting aid in, but driving people out" so it can capture the city, he said.
"Aleppo residents are calling the corridors that Russia is talking about 'death corridors'," which is why they have not taken up the invitation to use them, said Ahmad Ramadan from the opposition Syrian National Coalition.
A U.S. official told Reuters that the Syrian regime may intend to arrest and punish people who attempt to use the corridors, claiming they are armed rebels or "terrorists" trying to escape the city.
Moreover, "why would you evacuate a city that you wanted to send humanitarian aid to?" the official asked.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry suggested on July 29 that the Russian operation might be a "ruse," and if it is, that would destroy his ongoing efforts to negotiate a cease-fire and path towards Syrian peace with Russia in his last months in office.
But Ryabkov and other Russian officials insisted that they have no such dark intentions.
"There no reasons to doubt the purely humanitarian purpose" of the operation, Rybakov told Interfax. He charged that U.S. officials themselves are "playing some political game" rather than helping to end Aleppo's food shortages and humanitarian crisis.
The United Nations, which has estimated that food will run out in the city within weeks, has also expressed reservations about the Russian operation, and insisted that the UN should be in control of any safe routes out the city.
Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said Moscow is "ready for close and constructive cooperation" with the UN as well as the Red Cross and other organizations seeking to address the humanitarian crisis.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, Interfax, and AFP