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Kerry and Lavrov trade blame as air strikes pound Aleppo

Ameer Alhalbi, AFP | A Syrian man carries a baby after removing him from the rubble of a destroyed building following a reported air strike in the Qatarji neighbourhood of Aleppo on September 21, 2016.

Russia and the United States clashed over the carnage in Syria at a tense meeting of the UN Security Council on Wednesday, as air strikes pounded Aleppo following the collapse of a ceasefire.

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An angry US Secretary of State John Kerry demanded that Russia force Syria to ground its air force, which Washington blames for a deadly attack on an aid convoy earlier this week.

Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov are to sit down with key players in the conflict on Thursday to try to revive the ceasefire and chart a new course towards ending the five-year war.

"We are at a make or break moment," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the council, urging world powers to use their influence to help restart political talks so Syrians can "negotiate a way out of the hell in which they are trapped".

Russia and the United States negotiated the latest ceasefire plan, but Syria ended the truce on Monday following an apparently accidental US-led coalition strike on Syrian soldiers.

Shortly after the truce ended, the UN aid convoy was hit, killing 20 humanitarian workers and destroying 18 trucks carrying food for desperate civilians in Aleppo province.

Thursday meeting 'make or break' for collapsing ceasefire

On Wednesday, heavy bombardment pummeled Aleppo city and the wider province, key battlegrounds in Syria's conflict, killing at least 12 civilians according to local monitors, and a raid hit a medical team late Tuesday.

Addressing the council, Kerry said the bombing of the aid trucks raised "profound doubt" about whether Russia and its Syrian ally were committed to upholding a ceasefire.

"We must move forward to try to immediately ground all aircraft flying in those key areas in order to de-escalate the situation and to give a chance for humanitarian assistance to flow unimpeded," he said.

Moscow denies that Russian or Syrian planes carried out Monday's strike on the aid convoy.

A Russian military spokesman said a coalition drone was in the area when the aid trucks were destroyed, a claim the Pentagon denied.

After halting aid operations in response to the convoy attack, the United Nations said it was ready to resume humanitarian deliveries.

'Parallel universe'

Despite the US-Russian acrimony, diplomatic efforts were set to continue in New York with a new meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) to be held on Thursday.

The ISSG, which includes all key players in the Syria conflict, met for an hour on Tuesday, but made little headway in agreeing on the next steps to end the war that has killed 300,000 people.

Sounding a cautious note, Kerry told reporters late Wednesday that "it's going to be difficult. We'll see what people are willing to do".

Moscow meanwhile said it is dispatching its flagship aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, to bolster its forces in the eastern Mediterranean off Syria.

In his address to the Security Council, Lavrov declared that there would be "no more unilateral pauses" by Syrian government forces, arguing that opposition fighters on the ground had previously used those ceasefires to regroup.

Lavrov: 'We need to refrain from emotional reactions'

The foreign minister insisted that all sides must rein in rebel groups on the ground to ensure they comply with the ceasefire and said a list of terror groups not covered by the truce should be reviewed.

Only the Islamic State group and the formerly al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front – now known as the Fatah al-Sham Front – are not covered by the ceasefire, but Russia has long argued that other groups are fighting alongside those jihadists.

"If we can agree on this kind of comprehensive approach, an integrated, multifaceted approach, the chances of a cessation of hostilities surviving and being successful will be better," Lavrov said.

After hearing Lavrov, Kerry said he felt like the Russians were "sort of in a parallel universe" while the Russian foreign minister said it was time to "refrain from emotional reactions".

The United States holds Russia responsible for the attack on the aid convoy, with a US official saying two Russian SU-24 ground attack jets were operating in the area where it was struck.

The Russian foreign ministry said the "unsubstantiated, hasty accusations" seemed designed to "distract attention from the strange 'error' of coalition pilots" – a reference to Saturday's strike on Syrian troops, in which dozens were killed.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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