The Latest: UN Syria envoy urges al-Qaida to leave Aleppo
BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest on developments in Syria (all times local):
The U.N. envoy for Syria has urged al-Qaida-linked fighters in the rebel-held eastern parts of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo to leave the area.
Staffan de Mistura also asked Russian and Syrian forces if they would immediately stop their “aerial bombing” of Aleppo, providing militants from the Fatah al-Sham Front group — formerly known as the Nusra Front, which has been linked to al-Qaida — leave the city.
De Mistura said if the militants lay down their weapons “in dignity” and leave, he would “personally” accompany them out. He said the militant are in essence holding “hostage” roughly 275,000 people in Aleppo. The U.N. considers the Nusra Front a terrorist group.
De Mistura says a maximum of 900 Nusra Front fighters would “need some guarantees” that they would be allowed safe passage to Idlib province. He spoke to reporters in Geneva on Thursday.
The U.N. envoy for Syria says only an estimated 8,000 rebel fighters are holed up in the eastern parts of Aleppo amid a government offensive in this northern Syrian city — and that no more than 900 insurgents there are from the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria.
Staffan de Mistura’s remarks underscore the brutality of the fighting in Aleppo, where a besieged population of 275,000 in the eastern, rebel-held part of the city, is in desperate need of aid.
At a press conference in Geneva, de Mistira sharply revised downward his earlier estimate announced at the U.N. Security Council last month that more than half of all fighters in the northern city were from the al-Qaida-linked Fatah al-Sham Front, formerly known as the Nusra Front.
The Russian-backed Syrian offensive on rebel-held parts of Aleppo has in part spurred the United States to suspend its cooperation with Russia in trying to achieve a cease-fire in Syria.
In a BBC interview last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that 50 percent of opposition fighters in Aleppo were from Nusra Front, “as confirmed by the United Nations,” according to a transcript posted on Russian diplomatic websites.
Syria’s President Bashar Assad has denied reports that his government is targeting hospitals and civilian infrastructure.
Syrian opposition activists and international relief agencies have said Syrian and Russian warplanes have been hitting hospitals and infrastructure in the northern city of Aleppo, which has been the epicenter of the Syrian civil war in recent months.
Assad told Denmark’s TV2 station that “to say that this is our aim as a government, (that) we give the orders to destroy hospitals or schools or to kill civilians, this is against our interest.”
Still, Assad said mistakes are sometimes committed by individuals in any war. Excerpts from the interview were released by Assad’s office on Thursday. A full version is to be aired later.
Assad says that had his government been “committing all these atrocities,” he could not have remained president.
The Russian defense minister says the military will rely on its experience in the Syrian conflict to further improve its weapons.
Sergei Shoigu said on Thursday that new Russian weapons have “shown their reliability and efficiency” in Syria. The military has used the campaign to test some of its new weapons for the first time in combat.
Shoigu particularly mentioned the X-101 cruise missiles, which have been launched by Russian strategic bombers at targets in Syria, as well as long-range cruise missiles which have been fired by Russian surface ships and submarines.
Moscow has conducted its air campaign in Syria since Sept. 30 2015, turning the tide of war and helping Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military win some key ground.
The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for a deadly bombing in a northwestern Syrian village that killed at least 20 people, including many Turkey-backed opposition fighters.
The IS-linked Aamaq news agency says a suicide car bomber struck a convoy of rebels on the Syrian side of a border crossing point in the village of Atmeh.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the blast killed at least 20 people and wounded dozens. An activist collective in Idlib province known as Ariha Today put the death toll at 24.
Syrian activists have raised the death toll from an explosion in a northwestern village near the border with Turkey to at least 20 killed, including Turkey-backed rebels.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the blast in Atmeh on Thursday morning was either caused by a suicide bomber or a remotely detonated bomb. Another group, the Local Coordination Committees, says the blast was caused by a bag filled with explosives that went off on the Syrian side of a border crossing.
An activist collective in Idlib province known as Ariha Today says the blast killed 24.
The Observatory says the killed rebels have been fighting along with Turkish forces against the Islamic State group since August.
No one claimed responsibility for the attack.