Middle East

Russia says talks to extend Syrian lull in fighting to Aleppo

Russia said on Sunday talks were taking place to include Aleppo in a temporary lull in fighting declared by the Syrian army in some western parts of the country, a sign of intensified efforts to halt a surge of violence in Syria's former commercial capital.

The United States said stopping the bloodshed in Aleppo, which has been at the center of an escalation of violence that has all but destroyed a wider ceasefire deal and broke up peace talks in Geneva, was a top priority.

Nearly 10 days of bombardments by both the government side and insurgents in the city of Aleppo has killed more than 250 people, a monitoring group said, confounding hopes of an end to five years of war.

Rebels shelled government-held areas on Sunday, killing several people, and government warplanes carried out more than a dozen air strikes later in the day, the monitoring group said.

Moscow and Washington brokered the Feb. 27 ceasefire deal, which applied to western Syria but excluded al Qaeda and Islamic State fighters. World powers and the United Nations have been trying to salvage that truce.

Syria's army announced late on Friday a "regime of calm", or lull in fighting, which applied to Damascus and some of its outskirts, and parts of northwestern coastal province Latakia. But it excluded Aleppo.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who arrived in Geneva on Sunday for discussions on Syria with the United Nations and his Jordanian and Saudi counterparts, said a ceasefire was needed throughout Syria and hoped to be able to reaffirm the cessation of hostilities after talks in Geneva.

A senior defense ministry official in Moscow, which supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said on Sunday negotiations were taking place to "establish a regime of calm also in Aleppo province", Interfax news agency reported.

The official did not say who was negotiating on Aleppo.

He said the lull in fighting had been extended around Damascus for another 24 hours. In Latakia province, it still applied through Monday without need for an extension. It had been respected in both areas, the Russian official said.

Syria's army confirmed the extension of the lull around Damascus but did not mention Aleppo.

A number of rebel groups late on Saturday rejected the partial "regime of calm" in Damascus and Latakia, saying any truce must include all areas where the government and main opposition were fighting, as under the February deal.

"We will not accept under any circumstances… regional ceasefires," they said, adding they would respond as "one bloc" to attacks in any area of the country.

The U.S. State Department said Washington wanted Russia to put pressure on Assad to stop what it called indiscriminate aerial attacks in Aleppo, Syria's biggest city before the war, and which has long been split between government- and opposition-held areas of control.

"These are critical hours," Kerry said, adding: "We look for Russia’s cooperation, and we obviously look for the regime to listen to Russia and to respond."

Bombardments continue

Both sides have rained bombardments on residential areas for nearly 10 days, killing more than 250 people including at least 40 children, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The British-based group said insurgents had shelled at least one area on Sunday, killing at least three people. State news agency SANA said six people had been killed.

Fifteen air strikes by the government side hit rebel-held areas in the city, the Observatory said, and reported air raids in Aleppo's northern outskirts in areas along the Castello Road, the opposition's only way in and out of the city.

A resident in a rebel-held area said shops and businesses were closed and there had been electricity and water cuts for days.

Full control of Aleppo would be a huge prize for Assad. Russia's military intervention has helped turn the war Assad's way, reversing some gains rebels made last year.

Government forces and their allies also fought Islamic State near Palmyra in central Syria, which they recaptured from the jihadists in March, the Observatory and state media reported. The Observatory said 16 government fighters and seven Islamic State militants were killed.

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