UPDATE – Russia puts Aleppo truce in doubt


By Ayhan Simsek

HAMBURG, Germany (AA) – Sergei Lavrov on Friday vowed Russia would continue fighting armed opposition groups in Aleppo, a day after he announced a suspension of operations in the besieged Syrian city.

“I never said the fighting had been fully suspended, fully come to a close,” Moscow’s foreign minister told a news conference in Hamburg, where he was attending the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s annual meeting.

Lavrov said the Syrian regime had suspended its operations in eastern Aleppo on Thursday to allow civilians to leave the city, and he confirmed that the fighting resumed after a brief pause.

“Definitely after those military pauses, the hostilities will continue until the bandits leave east Aleppo. That is clear to everybody; it is clear to [our] American partners,” he added.

Renewed military operations in Aleppo, only a few hours after Lavrov’s announcement of a unilateral cease-fire has led to frustration among Western countries.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who hosted a meeting of OSCE foreign ministers in Hamburg, expressed surprise at Lavrov’s conflicting remarks.

“It is difficult to comment on that, because the same Russian foreign minister said yesterday that there would be a cease-fire unilaterally from the Russian side,” Steinmeier told a press conference in the German city of Hamburg.

“There may be some communication issues on the Russian side, between the defense ministry and the foreign ministry,” he added.

Despite failure to reach an agreement on a cease-fire, Steinmeier welcomed the resumption of talks between Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on the situation in Aleppo, and said that this is a small step forward.

– Talks to continue

Lavrov and Kerry have held three bilateral meetings and four phone calls since Wednesday to make progress towards a cease-fire which would allow humanitarian aid deliveries to civilians in the embattled city.

The Russian minister said, following his exchanges with Kerry, that the U.S. and Russian officials would meet in Geneva on Saturday to continue discussions on the situation in eastern Aleppo.

“Unless the Americans come up with something new, we still have a good chance to cooperate and agree on how to resolve this east Aleppo situation,” Lavrov said.

He told reporters all armed opposition groups should leave eastern Aleppo without bringing heavy armaments, before the delivery of humanitarian aid to the city.

“We do not want to support those who want to finish those militants at all costs; what we want is to avoid additional casualties and destruction,” he said.

– Doubt about US influence

Lavrov said Russia expected the U.S. administration to agree with these groups to ensure their departure from the city, but also expressed doubts whether the Americans had sufficient influence over opposition factions.

“Some of the regional stakeholders and countries can influence those militants, and we work with all these countries, with the Turks and others, and we have started coming to a some joint understanding. Probably that channel of cooperation would be more productive than dealing with the Americans,” he said.

Located some 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Turkish border, Aleppo is Syria’s second-largest city after the capital, Damascus.

Since mid-November, the regime and its allies have stepped up their attacks on opposition-held parts of the city, reportedly causing hundreds of civilian deaths and thousands of injuries.

– ‘Hundreds missing’

Earlier on Friday, the UN said it remained “gravely concerned” about hundreds of men who remain missing more than a week after crossing into Syrian regime-held areas of Aleppo.

“We are gravely concerned about the safety of civilians in Aleppo — those who remain in opposition-controlled areas as well as those who have fled to areas under government control,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesman, Rupert Colville.

Speaking in Geneva, Colville added: “We have received very worrying allegations that hundreds of men have gone missing after crossing into government-controlled areas,” the spokesman added.

*Fatih Erel contributed to this report from Geneva.