The Latest: Russia says Aleppo escape corridors under fire
BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest on the conflict in Syria (all times local):
The Russian military says that in the first day of the pause in fighting over the Syrian city of Aleppo, the corridors set up for civilians to escape the besieged city and for rebels to make safe passage came under consistent fire.
A statement late Thursday from the military’s “reconciliation center” in Syria gave few details of the shooting. But it said eight wounded rebels were able to safely leave the city.
The statement also said that fighters of the Ahrar al-Sham shot 14 local representatives in eastern Aleppo who had been urging civilians and rebels to leave the area.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says nearly 500 people have been killed and almost 2,000 wounded since the Syrian government launched its offensive on the eastern, rebel-held part of the city of Aleppo on Sept. 23.
Ban says the city’s besieged district has seen “the most sustained and intensive aerial bombardment” since the conflict began 5 1/2 years ago.
He told the U.N. General Assembly that the unilateral pause in bombing announced by Russia that began on Thursday is welcome and will hopefully lead to urgent medical evacuations.
But the U.N. chief said “this is the bare minimum,” and what is needed is full humanitarian access to eastern Aleppo and a nationwide cessation of hostilities.
Syria’s military command is threatening to shoot down any Turkish warplane that enters the Syrian air space.
Thursday’s announcement came after Turkish jets raided several villages held by Syrian Kurdish forces the previous day in Syria’s northern Aleppo province where the Kurdish forces and Turkish-backed Syrian rebels are jostling for territory once held by the Islamic State group.
The two sides have so far avoided engaging with the Syrian military.
The military statement called the Turkish air incursion a “flagrant aggression that targeted innocent civilians is a dangerous development.”
It says “these irresponsible acts will have dire consequences that will threaten the region’s stability and security.”
Turkish jets have flown numerous sorties over Syrian airspace in support of Syrian opposition forces and Turkey has sent tanks and ground troops across the border into Syria.
Russian state-run media say three Russian officers are reported to have been wounded by gunfire along one of the humanitarian corridors leading out of the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo.
Thursday’s reports come on the first day of a break in the fighting in Aleppo called by Russia and Syria.
State news agencies Tass and RIA Novosti cited Russia’s so-called “reconciliation center” in Syria as saying that the three officers were hit while manning a corridor checkpoint in the al-Masharka neighborhood.
The reports say they were taken to a Russian air base in Syria and that their injuries are not life-threatening.
Separately, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told U.S. counterpart John Kerry that militants have been violating the pause in the fighting, meant to allow suffering civilians to leave the city and also offer safe passage for the rebels.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is concerned that a Russian naval convoy heading for the Mediterranean will be used for military strikes in Syria and worsen civilian suffering there.
Stoltenberg said on Thursday that the Russian navy has taken similar routes in the past but that “what creates concern now is that this carrier group may be used to contribute to military operations over Syria and be used to increase attacks on Aleppo.”
He says NATO allies “are concerned that the Russian carrier group will support military operations in Syria in ways which will increase humanitarian and human suffering.”
Stoltenberg says NATO navies would monitor the Russian ships “in a responsible and measured way.”
A U.S. defense official in Washington says the Syrian Kurdish fighters targeted by Turkish airstrikes on Wednesday in northern Syria are not among the Kurdish groups that U.S. forces are advising and assisting, so there were no American troops with those Kurds when they came under attack.
The official said on Thursday, however, that since the Kurds who were targeted are affiliated with U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters, the Turkish attacks were problematic and have angered the U.S.-backed Kurds. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
—Robert Burns in Washington
Russia’s defense minister says a break in fighting in Aleppo has been extended for one more day.
Sergei Shoigu said on Thursday the “humanitarian pause” has been extended on President Vladimir Putin’s instructions and supported by the Syrian government.
Russia announced a dawn-to-dusk break in fighting in Aleppo Thursday to allow both civilians and militants to leave the rebel-held districts.
Shoigu’s statement came after U.N. aid official for Syria, Jan Egeland, told The Associated Press received Russian assurances to extend daily pauses in military action against rebel-held eastern Aleppo for four more days.
Putin said that Russia is ready to extend the pause in strikes if the rebels don’t escalate fighting. The Kremlin specified that the rebels’ attempt to rearm and regroup would derail the “humanitarian pause.”
4:35 p.m. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is pressing anew for a long-term cease-fire in the Syrian city of Aleppo.
Merkel said as she arrived on Thursday at a European Union summit in Brussels that she hoped EU leaders would “make clear that what is happening in Aleppo, with Russian support, is completely inhuman.”
Merkel says “there must be work as soon as possible on achieving a cease-fire — not just one over several hours per day, followed by many hours of bombing, but a lasting cease-fire.” She also stressed the importance of getting humanitarian aid to civilians.
The German leader and French President Francois Hollande pressed Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government is giving military support to President Bashar Assad’s forces, on Syria during a meeting in Berlin on Wednesday night.
___ 4:20 p.m. A U.N. aid official for Syria says Russia has agreed to extend daily pauses in military action against rebel-held eastern Aleppo for four more days.
Jan Egeland has told The Associated Press that the U.N. on Thursday received verbal assurances for the extension by a day, from three days previously, both from Russia’s diplomatic mission in Geneva and in writing from Russian military officials in Syria.
Speaking over the phone in Geneva, Egeland noted that the U.N. had already received assurances a day earlier from Moscow that the daily pauses would be extended from eight hours to 11 hours per day.
He says: “We have gotten it extended in both hours and in terms of days.” He added that the U.N. “have a window from Friday at least until Monday.”
A leading U.N. humanitarian aid official for Syria says the United Nations hopes to begin medical evacuations from rebel-held eastern Aleppo during a “pause” in fighting on Friday.
Jan Egeland says the U.N. has received the “green lights” it needs from Syria’s government, armed opposition groups and Russia, which announced the pause in fighting that began on Thursday.
Speaking in Geneva, Egeland also says the Russian government is considering a U.N. request to extend the planned three-day string of temporary, 11-hour daily pauses in fighting to a fourth day.
Egeland says the U.N. hoped to organize evacuations of “several hundred” critically wounded or sick people with their families either to government-controlled western Aleppo or to the rebel-held city of Idlib to the southwest, and deliver medical supplies to eastern Aleppo.
British Prime Minister Theresa May is urging her European Union partners to unite in condemnation of Russia’s role in Syria and bring an end to Moscow’s “sickening atrocities” there.
May told reporters on Thursday that “it is vital that we work together to continue to put pressure on Russia to stop its appalling atrocities, its sickening atrocities, in Syria.”
EU leaders are set to discuss their tense relations with Russia over dinner later Thursday at a summit in Brussels.
The U.N. special envoy for Syria has countered claims by Syrian President Bashar Assad that most civilians in the eastern part of the city of Aleppo want to leave the rebel-held area.
Staffan de Mistura also insisted a unilateral cease-fire in Aleppo announced by Russia that was underway on Thursday aims only to allow medical evacuations and is not part of a broader plan that he has laid out for the besieged northern city.
In an interview with Swiss broadcaster SRF broadcast Wednesday, Assad claimed “the majority” of civilians wanted to leave eastern Aleppo and alleged “the terrorists” would shoot them or kill their families if they tried to flee.
De Mistura countered that, telling reporters in Geneva that people in eastern Aleppo “want to stay in their places, but they do request the stop to bombing.”
Turkey’s state-run media says Turkish artillery units have struck back at Syrian Kurdish militia forces in northern Syria in retaliation to mortar fire from the group.
The Anadolu Agency says five mortar shells fired by Syrian Kurdish fighters hit an empty field near a military outpost in the border province of Hatay on Thursday.
No one was hurt in the attack which was carried out from the Syrian border town of Afrin, which is held by the main Syrian Kurdish group, the People’s Protection Unit, or YPG.
It said Turkish artillery retaliated in line with Turkey’s rules of engagement, firing at YPG targets.
Turkey considers the YPG, which is affiliated to its own outlawed Kurdish rebel group, a terror organization.
A senior Syrian Kurdish official says Turkish attacks on Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria pose a threat to a U.S.-led anti-terrorism fight in the area.
Ilham Ahmed spoke Thursday, a day after Turkish war planes struck positions of the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia in northern Syria. Turkey’s state-run news agency said the strikes killed up to 200 militia members, while a commander of main Syria Kurdish militia said no more than 10 fighters were killed.
Ahmed says Turkish aircraft and tanks targeted areas liberated by Kurdish-led forces from Islamic State militants, effectively aiding the extremist group.
She alleged that Turkey is taking advantage of Washington’s preoccupation with presidential elections next month to impose its plans in Syria, including pushing back the Kurds and advancing in Aleppo. She urged Washington to intercede
Turkey’s deputy prime minister says his country is “displeased” with the support the United States provides Syrian Kurdish fighters who are linked to Turkey’s Kurdish rebels.
Numan Kurtulmus also said Thursday that Ankara hopes that the new U.S. president will keep his or her distance from the militia and strive to maintain good ties with NATO ally Turkey.
Kurtulmus told reporters: “whoever comes next to the U.S. presidency” understands the importance of maintaining ties with “a key regional country like Turkey and not an armed terrorist organization with a few thousand militants.”
Ankara views the Syrian Kurdish militia and its political wing as an extension of Turkey’s own banned Kurdish independence movement.
A senior commander of the main Syrian Kurdish militia says Turkish jets and artillery are still attacking his forces north of the embattled city of Aleppo, but says no more than 10 fighters have been killed so far.
Turkey’s state-run news agency reported Thursday as many as 200 militia members were killed in air raids on targets in Aleppo province where the Kurdish-led forces have been advancing for days against Islamic State militants.
Commander Mahmoud Barkhadan of the People’s Protection Unit says Turkish tanks have been shelling the Kurdish-led forces in the area since early Wednesday. Barkhadan says jets joined the attack Wednesday night and continued to pound his forces in the area. He says early reports suggest no more than 10 fighters have been killed and 20 wounded. There was no word on civilian casualties yet.
The Syrian military is calling on residents of besieged rebel-held districts in the city of Aleppo to evacuate and for gunmen to lay down their weapons as the humanitarian pause announced by Russia takes effect.
Moscow says the three-day pause is to allow civilians and militants safe passage out of the eastern districts of the city — under a tight siege since July and a punishing bombing campaign since mid-September. Al-Mayadeen TV, a Beirut-based pro-Syrian channel, broadcast Thursday an hour after the pause began from near one of the designated passages.
Loudspeakers blared with military calls for residents to let the sick and wounded out first, and urging fighters to lay down their guns. The message: “The battle for returning Aleppo to the nation’s fold is in its last phases. There is no point in continuing the fight.”
Turkey’s state-run news agency says Turkish jets have struck 18 Syrian Kurdish militia targets north of the Syrian city of the embattled city of Aleppo, killing as many as 200.
Anadolu Agency says Thursday the raids targeted the Maarraat Umm Hawsh region in northern Syria. The agency said between 160 and 200 militia fighters were killed in the raid.
It says the air strikes took place late Wednesday night.
The United States considers the militia group, known as the People’s Protection Units or YPG, to be the most effect force in the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria. Turkey says the group is an extension of its own outlawed Kurdish militants who have carried out a series of deadly attacks in Turkey over the past year.