Pause in Aleppo fighting broken as mortar shells hit evacuation corridor
Two Russian soldiers and a Syrian journalist have been injured as mortar rounds struck one of the exit corridors designated for the evacuation of rebels and residents from eastern Aleppo during a temporary halt in fighting.
For several hours into the 10-hour pause, no one approached the corridors, where webcam footage shared by the Russian Defence Ministry showed no activities.
By early afternoon, about four hours before the halt expired, Syrian state media said seven mortar shells from the rebel-held side of the city hit one of the corridors in the northern part of the city.
The Russian Defence Ministry said the two Russian servicemen were lightly wounded in rebel shelling of the humanitarian corridor in the western section of Castello Road in north Aleppo. They were evacuated and their lives are not in danger, the statement said.
Syrian state TV said a correspondent for a pro-government station was wounded by shrapnel.
The halt in fighting was unilaterally announced by Russia. The Syrian government has largely abided by the halt and there has been no reported shelling or violence in the besieged part of the city. There was no UN monitoring of the corridors.
UN officials at a regular news conference in Geneva would not directly comment on the Russian initiative, but reiterated that security conditions were not adequate for deliveries of aid into eastern Aleppo and stepped up calls for a nationwide truce.
Asked whether the Russian plan offered a window of opportunity for humanitarian aid convoys, spokesman Jens Laerke of the UN aid agency OCHA said: "I'm trying my best not to comment on the actual initiative, but to state what the situation is."
Jessy Chahine, a spokeswoman for UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, said: "Anything that contributes to saving lives is more than welcome.
"The special envoy is against the evacuation of civilians unless it is voluntary."
Earlier, Syrian state TV showed footage from one of the designated corridors with buses parked to transport anyone coming out of eastern Aleppo. Police and an Islamic cleric were waiting at the crossing.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that by midday no one had used the corridors. A Civil Defence volunteer in Aleppo, Ibrahim al-Haj, said no left in the early afternoon either.
The UN estimates 275,000 people are trapped in the eastern, rebel-held part of the divided city.
Amnesty International said fears for the safety of civilians in the city are mounting amid "the looming threat of a resumption and a possible escalation of the fighting" once the humanitarian pause expires.
"The scale of the devastation in eastern Aleppo in recent months has been chilling," said Samah Hadid, with Amnesty's office in Beirut. "Given the track record of the forces fighting in Aleppo - particularly government forces - Amnesty International fears there will be very high civilian casualties as Syrian forces, supported by Russia, escalate attacks in order to seize control of the city.
"The temporary humanitarian pause announced by Russia is no substitute for unfettered and impartial humanitarian access and ensuring protection of civilians in the longer term."
A rebel spokesman, Yasser al-Youssef, from the Nour el-Din el-Zinki group, said war planes were flying over the area, and added that the planes continued to target rebel supply lines in western Aleppo province.
The Qasioun news agency reported that the planes fired missiles on the towns of Urem al-Kubra and Kfar Naha, wounding several people.
After midday, air strikes hit the western town of Atareb, about 15 miles from the city, killing at least three children, according to the activist platform Aleppo Today TV and the Revolutionary Forces of Syria.
Russia's offer of a 10-hour "humanitarian pause," announced earlier this week, has raised speculation that a major offensive may be planned once the pause expires on Friday evening.
Overnight, leaflets from the Syrian Armed Forces were dropped over eastern Aleppo, urging residents and rebels to take advantage of the pause and leave the city. Activists posted one leaflet online with instructions to residents on how to leave the area safely, with hands raised.
There has been no official word from Russia on what would happen once the humanitarian pause expires. Last month, pauses expired with no resumption of air strikes, which Russia said it halted on the eastern side of the city. Later, residents reported air strikes on the front line with western Aleppo.