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Russia Says Syrian Army Has Suspended Operations In Eastern Aleppo

Syrian pro-government forces drive a tank through a newly retaken district of Aleppo's Old City on December 8.
Syrian pro-government forces drive a tank through a newly retaken district of Aleppo's Old City on December 8.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says the Syrian army has suspended combat operations in rebel-held eastern Aleppo, Russian media reported.

Lavrov, speaking on the sidelines of an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meeting in the German city of Hamburg on December 8, said the move would allow the evacuation of some 8,000 civilians trapped in the battle zone.

"I can tell you that today, combat operations by the Syrian army have been halted in eastern Aleppo because there is a large operation underway to evacuate civilians," he said.

Residents of Aleppo reported little let-up in the government's bombing and shelling campaign, however. Residents reported warplanes firing from machine guns at rebel positions and artillery shells falling on remaining rebel-controlled districts in what one rebel group described as an "intense battle."

The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights monitoring group also reported sporadic clashes with new raids and artillery fire late on December 8. Washington said it had no confirmation that the army had ceased fire in Aleppo.

Lavrov said after talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Hamburg that they had agreed Russian and U.S. military experts would meet in Geneva on December 10 to define "ways and means for a final solution of the problem of eastern Aleppo according to which all the militants leave it as well as those civilians who want to do so."

In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Lavrov's announcement was "an indication that something positive could happen."

The U.S. State Department said Kerry and Lavrov spoke by phone on December 8 and agreed to continue discussing a cease-fire to allow aid delivery and the departure of civilians.

"They agreed to continue discussions about establishing a framework for a cease-fire that will allow the delivery of aid, desperately needed humanitarian aid, as well as the safe departure of those who wish to leave the city," State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau told a press briefing.

She said the specific nature of the talks in Geneva on December 10 were still being worked out.

Kerry said after meeting Lavrov that he was not confident but "hopeful" about reaching a deal, and was still waiting for "certain feedback and input" from Moscow.

"We are close to reaching an understanding, but I want to warn against high expectations," The Russian Interfax news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying.

U.S., Russia 'Poles Apart'

Earlier, UN Humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said the United States and Russia were "poles apart" in trying to agree on terms for evacuations from rebel-held areas of Aleppo.

Egeland told reporters in Geneva on December 8 that months of negotiations over aid plans had produced "nothing," and that it was up to the United States and Russia to pull together to agree an evacuation of besieged eastern Aleppo.

Syrian and Russian leaders have previously rejected pleas from rebel forces and Western powers for a cease-fire in Aleppo and pressed their campaign to retake the city in its entirety.

In an interview published on December 8, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said victory in the battle for Aleppo would be a "big gain" for his government but that it will not be the end of the war in Syria.

Syrian government forces have recaptured around 75 percent of eastern Aleppo in recent weeks.

Rebels had controlled the area since 2012.

Intense Bombings

Hundreds of people have been reported killed and tens of thousands displaced by the fighting in the past few weeks.

The UN has said the remaining rebel-held areas, where food supplies are exhausted and there are no functioning hospitals, may hold 8,000 fighters among more than 100,000 civilians.

Syria opposition activists reported on December 8 that intense government bombings of a number of neighborhoods that remain under rebel control.

Also on December 8, Turkey's presidential spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said there was "intense diplomatic activity" in order to bring about a cease-fire in Aleppo and the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Kalin said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is personally engaged in the effort and had spoken three times with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

In London, Britain’s foreign intelligence chief accused Russia and the Syrian government of blocking efforts to end the war in Syria and defeat the extremist group Islamic State (IS) by treating all opponents of Assad as terrorists.

"Russia and the Syrian regime seek to make a desert and call it peace. The human tragedy is heart-breaking," Secret Intelligence Service head Alex Younger said on December 8. "We cannot be safe from the threats that emanate from that land unless the civil war is brought to an end."

Western governments say a campaign of air strikes that Russia launched in September 2015 has mainly targeted rebels rather than IS militants.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and BBC
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