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Russia announces 'humanitarian corridors' for Syria's besieged Aleppo

Karam al-Masri, AFP | Syrians queue up to buy bread in a rebel held neighbourhood in the northern city of Aleppo on July 12, 2016.

The Syrian regime’s main ally Russia announced a “large-scale” aid operation to allow civilians and fighters to flee besieged Aleppo on Thursday, as France and the UK called for an end to the city’s “disastrous” siege.

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Syrian government forces backed by Russia have surrounded rebel-held districts in eastern Aleppo since July 17, sparking fears for the more than 200,000 people who live there.

Residents have reported food shortages and spiralling prices in rebel districts since regime forces cut off the opposition's main supply route into the northern city earlier this month.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Thursday three humanitarian corridors were being opened "to aid civilians held hostage by terrorists and for fighters wishing to lay down their arms".

He told Russian news agencies that a fourth corridor would be opened to the north of Aleppo for rebels to flee with their weapons.

Medical and food assistance would be provided along the routes for civilians and fighters who lay down their weapons, Shoigu said, adding the operation would get under way later Thursday.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, meanwhile, issued a decree offering an amnesty to rebels who surrender over the next three months, the official SANA news agency reported.

Syria's state broadcaster also announced "the opening of three passages to allow citizens out of eastern districts" of Aleppo.

‘Premature’ to comment on Russia plan

Regime planes on Thursday dropped flyers showing a map with the location of the humanitarian passages, as well as small aid packages, according to an AFP correspondent.

But after visiting one of the corridors, the correspondent said it remained closed and there was no movement of residents nearby.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s Syria envoy, said it was premature to comment on the proposals by Moscow and Damascus, adding that the United Nations, "like everyone else", had not been consulted.

Video: Aleppo doctors in plea for help

De Mistura called on Russia and the United States to work together in reducing the fighting in Syria, saying US and Russian military officials were due in Geneva for talks.

"We are all awaiting and urging the two co-chairs – which means Russia and the US – to expedite their own discussions on how to reduce violence," de Mistura said.

Moscow and Washington jointly sponsored a ceasefire and peace talks earlier this year, but the truce has largely collapsed and the talks have yet to resume amid the fighting, although de Mistura hopes to reconvene them in late August.

France, UK put pressure on Russia

As Russia made the announcement, France and Britain renewed demands for an end to the regime's "disastrous" siege of eastern Aleppo.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and his British counterpart Boris Johnson said in a joint statement that the consequences of the siege, "including the bombardment of civilians and medical facilities, are already disastrous and could generate further refugees".

“These operations violate the truce agreed in Munich and international law", the ministers statement added, referring to the ceasefire brokered earlier this year, which collapsed in May.

Ayrault and Johnson called for the cessation of hostilities agreement "to be fully and immediately restored, and for progress towards the establishment of a transitional authority with full executive powers".

They stressed that “Russia in particular has a unique ability to persuade the Assad regime to end the war and return to the negotiating table."

Cluster bombs

Previously the country's economic hub, Aleppo and its surrounding countryside have suffered some of the worst fighting in the five-year conflict that has killed more than 280,000 people.

It has been roughly divided into a regime-controlled west and a rebel-held east since July 2012.

Analysts say that losing Aleppo would be a major blow for the armed opposition and could signal a turning point in the conflict, which began in 2011 with the brutal crackdown of anti-government protests.

Also on Thursday, Human Rights Watch accused Assad's regime and Russia of extensively using banned cluster munitions against the rebels since late May.

The New York-based watchdog said it had documented 47 cluster munition attacks that killed and injured dozens of civilians in rebel-held areas in three provinces since May 27, many north and west of Aleppo.

Widely banned, cluster munitions contain dozens or hundreds of bomblets and are fired in rockets or dropped from the air.

They spread explosives over large areas and are indiscriminate in nature, often continuing to maim and kill long after the initial attack when previously unexploded bomblets detonate.

"Although Russia and Syria are not members of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, they are still bound by international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, which prohibits indiscriminate attacks," HRW said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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