Syria's Aleppo set ablaze ahead of fresh diplomatic efforts

2016-09-22 17:16
This image provided by the Syrian anti-government group Aleppo 24 news, shows a vest of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent hanging on a damaged vehicle. (Aleppo 24 news via AP)

This image provided by the Syrian anti-government group Aleppo 24 news, shows a vest of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent hanging on a damaged vehicle. (Aleppo 24 news via AP)

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Aleppo - Huge blazes erupted in Syria's Aleppo as the city was rocked by fighting and airstrikes on Thursday, ahead of last-ditch efforts by world powers to salvage a failed ceasefire.

The top diplomats from the United States and Russia were to meet with other key players in New York later on Thursday, after UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Syria's peace process was facing a "make or break moment".

The truce deal brokered by Moscow and Washington fell apart earlier this week, ushering in a surge of fighting on all major fronts of Syria's five-year civil war.

Heavy clashes gripped the outskirts of Aleppo on Thursday, after air strikes triggered major fires across the city's devastated rebel-held districts.

An AFP correspondent in the eastern Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood reported that his entire street was in flames following the pre-dawn strikes.

Volunteer fire-fighters battled throughout the night to contain the blazes, which local activists at the Aleppo Media Centre said were caused by "incendiary phosphorous bombs".

In footage posted by the group, a ball of flame shoots up over the city, lighting up the skyline and sparking fires on the horizon.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 14 strikes on the rebel-held neighbourhoods of Bustan al-Qasr and Al-Kalasseh "led to massive fires" overnight.

Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said they were "the most intense strikes in months" on those two districts and that they had killed seven people, including three women and three children.

'Non-stop strikes'

"The non-stop strikes last night were so violent I can't even describe them," said Ibrahim Abu al-Leith, spokesperson for the White Helmets, a prominent Syrian group of emergency responders.

One volunteer was wounded in the strikes and ensuing fires, Abu al-Leith said.

The White Helmets on Thursday won the Right Livelihood Award "for their outstanding bravery, compassion and humanitarian engagement," announced the jury for the Swedish human rights award, known as the "alternative Nobel prize".

Fresh air strikes also hit Aleppo's Sukkari neighbourhood, the Observatory said, and fierce clashes hit the southwestern district of Ramussa, where rebel groups are fighting off a government offensive.

Even as violence escalated, the UN resumed aid deliveries on Thursday in its first operation since a strike on a humanitarian convoy in Syria's north.

"Today we are sending an inter-agency, cross-line convoy with urgently needed aid to people in a besieged area of rural Damascus," UN humanitarian agency (OCHA) spokesperson Jens Laerke said.

Monday's strike on the aid convoy was furiously condemned by humanitarian organisations and prompted the UN to briefly halt its operations in Syria.

Diplomatic efforts to end Syria's complex war were set to continue in New York with a new meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) on Thursday.

The ISSG, chaired by Moscow and Washington, met for an hour earlier this week but made little headway in agreeing on the next steps to end the war that has killed 300 000 people.

Moscow is a key ally of President Bashar Assad while Washington has supported moderate rebel groups opposed to his regime.

The latest Syria truce was reached after talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier this month, but it broke down after Syria's military declared an end to the fighting freeze on Monday night.

Sounding a cautious note before Thursday's talks, Kerry said: "It's going to be difficult. We'll see what people are willing to do".

Talks in 'next few weeks?'

During an address to the UN Security Council on Wednesday, Kerry demanded that Russia force Damascus to ground its air force in the wake of Monday's deadly raid on the aid convoy.

Kerry said the strike, which killed about 20 civilians and destroyed 18 aid trucks, raised "profound doubt" about whether Russia and its Syrian ally were committed to upholding a ceasefire.

Moscow denies that Russian or Syrian planes carried out the raid and instead said a coalition drone was in the area when the aid trucks were hit.

The US-Russia deal had called for an end to fighting between regime forces and non-jihadist rebels, excluding extremists like the Islamic State group, as well as increased aid deliveries.

It was meant to pave the way for a resumption of peace talks, which have repeatedly failed.

The UN's deputy envoy for Syria said on Thursday that he hoped talks could resume in the coming weeks, despite "grim" events on the ground.

Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy said his boss, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, was in discussion with warring parties to organise "direct negotiations," a departure from past rounds where the sides met separately with moderators.

The UN is working "with a view to holding these talks hopefully in the next few weeks," he said.

Read more on:    un  |  ban ki moon  |  us  |  russia  |  syria  |  syria conflict

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