The Syrian army's advance in Aleppo slowed on Thursday but a victory was still firmly in sight after President Bashar al-Assad vowed that retaking the city would change the course of the six-year-old war.
Russia's RIA news agency quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying the Syrian army, which has captured territory including Aleppo's historic Old City in recent days, had halted military activity to let civilians leave rebel-held territory.
However, Reuters reporters in a government-held part of the city said bombardment could still be heard after his remarks were published. Washington said it had no confirmation that the army had ceased fire.
|Syrian government soldiers gather in Al-Haidariya neighbourhood after government forces took control of the area in Aleppo, Syria December 2, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
Earlier, a Reuters journalist said government forces were shelling rebel-held areas of southwest Aleppo into the afternoon. Columns of smoke were rising from rebel-held areas.
The last two weeks have seen rebels driven from most of their territory in what was once Syria's largest city, the eastern section of which the insurgents have controlled since 2012.
Although there are still many rural areas in rebel hands, Aleppo is their last big urban redoubt. The prospect of its fall, following months of government gains elsewhere, has brought Assad closer to victory than at any point since the early months of a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands and made half of Syrians homeless.
"Aleppo will completely change the course of the battle in all of Syria," Assad said, speaking in an interview with the Syrian newspaper al-Watan.
Moscow and Washington are trying to negotiate a ceasefire to allow civilians to escape eastern Aleppo and aid to arrive. Russia, which backs the army with air strikes, also wants the United States to urge rebel fighters to abandon their territory and accept transport out, which the Syrian government has provided fighters who agreed to lay down arms elsewhere.
The U.S. State Department said Secretary of State John Kerry had spoken by telephone to Lavrov to discuss a ceasefire. The two also met face to face on the sidelines of a conference in Hamburg.
The rebels have called for an immediate five-day ceasefire and the evacuation of civilians and wounded, but have so far given no indication they are ready to withdraw.
The U.N. assessment for diplomacy was bleak. Russia and the United States were "poles apart", U.N. Syria humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said. Five months of talks over aid plans had all failed and produced "nothing".
"We are ... witnessing talks on Aleppo which are just trying to tailor and to manage the Syrian and Russian victory," a European diplomat told reporters on condition of anonymity.
More than 800 people have been killed and up to 3,500 wounded in eastern Aleppo in the past 26 days, while the remaining trapped civilians await an effective death sentence, the president of Aleppo local council said.
"Today 150,000 people are threatened with extermination. We are calling for a halt to the bombing and guarantees of safe passage of all," Brita Haji Hassan said during a trip to Geneva.
United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said on Thursday he planned to meet "people around the team" of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.Reuters