Russia hoped yesterday a new ceasefire could be announced within hours for Syria’s battered city of Aleppo, where fresh fighting including rocket fire on a maternity hospital left at least 19 dead.
As the city was struck by some of its heaviest reported clashes in days, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said efforts were under way to agree a freeze in the fighting.
“I am hoping that in the near future, maybe even in the next few hours, such a decision will be announced,” Lavrov said after meeting UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura in Moscow.
France and Britain called for an urgent UN Security Council meeting on Aleppo, boosting the major push by world powers this week to end the fighting.
“Aleppo is burning and it is crucial that we focus on this top priority issue,” said British ambassador to the UN Matthew Rycroft.
A February 27 truce between President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and non-militant rebels raised hopes for efforts to resolve the five-year conflict.
But it has all but collapsed amid renewed fighting, especially in Aleppo.
A surge of violence that erupted on April 22 has killed more than 270 people in the divided northern city and undermined efforts to revive peace talks.
In Washington, US Secretary of State John Kerry warned Assad of “repercussions” if his regime continues to flout a new ceasefire being negotiated for Aleppo.
After a relative lull on Monday and early yesterday, rebels in eastern Aleppo fired at least 65 rockets into government-controlled neighbourhoods, said Syrian state news agency SANA.
The rockets killed 16 people and wounded 68, including at least three women at Al-Dabbeet maternity hospital, it reported.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said it had counted at least 19 dead and 80 wounded from the attacks on government-held areas.
Fierce fighting also raged on Aleppo’s western edges after rebels detonated explosives in a tunnel, an AFP correspondent said, adding the clashes subsided at nightfall.
It was the most violent day for the city’s regime-held west since clashes resumed 11 days ago.
New regime strikes also hit rebel-held eastern areas, another AFP correspondent reported.
As warplanes thundered above, rebel and government forces exchanged nearly non-stop artillery fire.
Civil defence workers said air strikes on the rebel-held east killed three people, including a child.
The rocket attack was the sixth time a medical facility has been hit in 11 days in Aleppo, the International Committee for the Red Cross said, calling it “unacceptable”.
The Security Council unanimously voted yesterday to condemn the targeting of health facilities in war zones.
Kerry also condemned the attacks.
“The cessation of hostilities was put in place precisely to give the people on the ground who are innocently caught between these warring factions some breather... and work this out at the negotiating table,” he said.
“That is why we are working urgently right now to reaffirm the cessation of hostilities nationwide.”
In Moscow after seeing Kerry in Geneva on Monday, De Mistura said it was crucial for the ceasefire to be “brought back on track”, hailing the February truce as a “remarkable achievement”.
Diplomatic efforts were set to continue today in Berlin with De Mistura joining the German and French foreign ministers for talks with Syria’s main opposition leader.
Washington and Moscow are working together to include Aleppo in a so-called “regime of silence” - a freeze in fighting - aimed at bolstering the broader truce.
They have agreed to boost the number of Geneva-based truce monitors to track violations “24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Kerry said on Monday.
In a nod to Moscow’s demands, Kerry said Washington would press moderate rebels to separate themselves from Al Nusra Front jihadists in Aleppo.
Russia and Assad’s regime have used the presence of Al Nusra, an affiliate of Al Qaeda which was not party to the ceasefire, as an excuse to press their offensive.
The Observatory says more than 270 civilians - including 54 children - have been killed on both sides of divided Aleppo since April 22.
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