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Syria army urges residents to quit Aleppo as ceasefire begins

Flyers reportedly distributed by the government encouraging people to leave a rebel-held area in the northern embattled city of Aleppo are seen lying in the street on October 20, 2016.  A "humanitarian pause" in the Syrian army's Russian-backed assault on Aleppo took effect but despite a drop in violence there was little sign residents were heeding calls to leave.  / AFP PHOTO / KARAM AL-MASRI / TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY KARAM AL-MASRI

Flyers reportedly distributed by the government encouraging people to leave a rebel-held area in the northern embattled city of Aleppo are seen lying in the street on October 20, 2016.<br />A “humanitarian pause” in the Syrian army’s Russian-backed assault on Aleppo took effect but despite a drop in violence there was little sign residents were heeding calls to leave.<br />/ AFP PHOTO / KARAM AL-MASRI / TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY KARAM AL-MASRI

A “humanitarian pause” in the Syrian army’s Russian-backed assault on Aleppo took effect Thursday, but despite a drop in violence there was little sign residents were heeding calls to leave.

The UN said it hoped to carry out the first medical evacuations from Aleppo on Friday, after getting clearance from all warring parties and a pledge from Russia to extend the truce until Saturday.

The unilateral ceasefire began at 8:00 am (0500 GMT) and was to last at least 11 hours, with the aim of allowing civilians and fighters to evacuate the city’s opposition-controlled east.

Gunfire and artillery exchanges erupted around a crossing point near the rebel-controlled Bustan al-Qasr district shortly after the pause began, an AFP correspondent said.

State news agency SANA said “terrorist groups” had targeted the area around the corridor with rocket, machinegun and sniper fire “in an attempt to hinder the humanitarian pause”.

But by afternoon, the clashes had subsided and the east was calm, though the streets were empty.

The UN said Russia had pledged to extend the truce until Saturday night and the Syrian army had earlier said it would last three days.

On Thursday its soldiers were calling through loudspeakers for residents to “seize the chance” to evacuate.

Russia announced the ceasefire earlier this week, amid growing international pressure over its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s campaign to recapture the city.

More than 300,000 people have been killed since Syria’s conflict began in March 2011, and the violence in Aleppo has been described as some of the worst of the war.

– ‘Goodwill gesture’ –
Russia says the pause is a “goodwill gesture” but rebel groups have said they will not abandon their posts and many civilians fear falling into the hands of the regime forces that surround Aleppo.

Western powers have also expressed scepticism. European Union leaders gathered for a summit in Brussels on Thursday were to strongly condemn Syria and Russia over Aleppo and were weighing sanctions.

More than 250,000 civilians have been trapped in the rebel-held east of the city under near-continuous siege since mid-July.

The Syrian army has said it is opening eight corridors for civilians to leave, two of which can also be used by rebel fighters provided they leave behind their weapons.

The Russian defence ministry was streaming live video from several of the corridors, showing waiting ambulances and buses along empty roads.

An AFP photographer in government-held west Aleppo said seven injured people had crossed via the Bustan al-Qasr crossing despite the fighting.

But AFP correspondents in the east visited four crossing points and saw no movement through them.

Yasser Youssef of the Nureddine al-Zinki rebel group said opposition fighters wanted “nothing to do” with the Russian initiative.

“Who are they to decide to displace the Syrian people who rebelled against the dictator Assad?” he asked.

– Afraid to leave –
Some civilians interviewed by AFP said they were eager to leave but wanted more reassurance they would be safe.

“I don’t want to risk my life or my family’s by being among the first to leave,” said Mohammed Shayah, an unemployed father of four.

More than 2,000 people have been wounded since the army launched a new offensive last month aiming to take the entire city, according to the United Nations. Some 400 have been killed.

The UN’s humanitarian taskforce chief Jan Egeland said Thursday that Russia, the Syrian government, and rebels had given permission for medical evacuations from Aleppo to start on Friday.

“We hope that the first medical evacuations can take place tomorrow,” he said, adding that the UN hoped to also deliver food to besieged east.

The civilian toll in Aleppo has drawn international condemnation, with Washington saying the bombardment could amount to a war crime.

Moscow has dismissed the accusation as propaganda and demanded that rebels break ranks with the former Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Fateh al-Sham Front.

In Brussels on Thursday, EU leaders were weighing sanctions against supporters of Assad’s regime, according to a draft summit statement obtained by AFP.

EU President Donald Tusk said the organisation should keep all options open in dealing with Russia, “including sanctions,” if it continues its “crimes” in Aleppo.

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May urged a “robust and united” European approach to Russian “atrocities” in Syria.

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