Beirut: Russian and Syrian forces will halt hostilities for eight hours in the eastern districts of Aleppo, Russia's military announced on a day when opposition activists said their airstrikes killed at least 36 people, including several children, in and around the divided city.
The two militaries will observe a "humanitarian pause" between 8 am and 4 pm on October 20 to allow civilians and militants safe passage out of the city, Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi of Russia's general staff said in Moscow. Militants, the wounded and sick would be allowed to evacuate to the neighboring rebel-held province of Idlib.
UN humanitarian officials have pleaded with combatants to observe weekly 48-hour cease-fires to allow humanitarian relief into the city's besieged eastern districts, but Russian and Syrian forces have only escalated their aerial and ground assault on the rebel-held areas in recent weeks. The airstrikes have claimed hundreds of lives, wounded many, flattened apartment buildings and laid waste to the already crippled medical sector.
Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters at UN headquarters in New York that the eight-hour pause was a unilateral halt to fighting. A 48-hour or 72-hour cease-fire "will require some sort of mutual arrangement," he said.
Russian and Syrian leaders are now capitalising on a proposal made by the UN's envoy earlier this month to allow al-Qaeda-linked militants to leave in exchange for peace and local administration for the eastern districts.
Rebels in the east, along with many residents, spurned the proposition, citing their distrust of the government side. And Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution mandating an immediate cease-fire.
US State Department spokesman Mark Toner, speaking to reporters in Washington, noted that the people of Aleppo "have been subjected to near constant bombardment and air strikes" that have killed many civilians and leveled much of the city's infrastructure in an effort "to starve out and to drive out the opposition and civilians."
"If there is actually an eight-hour pause in the unremitting suffering of the people of Aleppo, that would be a good thing. But frankly, it's a bit too little, too late."
Yesterday's Russian announcement did not include any promises of an extended cease-fire or local administration. It followed a bloody day of airstrikes on rebel-held districts in and around Aleppo. At least 23 people were killed in airstrike that also wounded dozens in the village of Oweijel, just west of Aleppo, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Another monitoring group, the Local Coordination Committees, said the air raid was carried out by Russian warplanes and put the death toll at 30.
More than a dozen people were also killed in the Marjeh neighborhood in eastern Aleppo. The Aleppo Media Centre, an activist collective, said those killed included 11 people with the same family name of Qabs ranging from a six-week-old baby girl to a 25-year-old man.
The Observatory said at least 50 civilians, including 18 children, were killed in airstrikes on the eastern part of the city in the 24 hours before the Russian announcement.