Syria’s government opened two crossings for fighters who want to leave the rebel-held eastern part of the contested city of Aleppo, a day after announcing a three-day humanitarian pause to its offensive.
Helicopters dropped hundreds of thousands of leaflets on Aleppo urging rebel fighters to take advantage of the amnesty and leave the city through safe exits marked on maps, according to state-run Syrian TV. It broadcast footage of ambulances and medics waiting for evacuees at six other crossings earmarked for civilians.
“Each gunman who does not seize the opportunity of the pause will face his fatal destiny,” Syria’s army said in a statement on Wednesday announcing the 72-hour halt to operations.
The government and its Russian ally, whose weeks-long bombardment of eastern Aleppo has prompted U.S. and European leaders to talk of war crimes and possible sanctions, appear to be hoping that encouraging an exodus from the city will blunt growing criticism of their tactics. But only “a number” of fighters had left by late afternoon, according to state television. It said residents were being prevented from leaving by the gunmen entrenched in that part of the city.
The temporary suspension in fighting follows weeks of intense Russian and Syrian airstrikes and bombardment of rebel-held areas of Aleppo that left them in ruin and, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, killed 648 civilians people since Sept. 19 when a truce collapsed.
It came as the European Union is considering sanctions against Russia, “including further restrictive measures targeting individuals and entities supporting the regime should the current atrocities continue,” according to draft conclusions for the Oct. 20-21 meeting of EU leaders in Brussels obtained by Bloomberg News.
Before the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began as peaceful protests in 2011, Aleppo was Syria’s economic capital and its most populous city. A government victory there would put all the major population centers under Assad’s control and free up regime forces to focus on remaining opposition strongholds, including around the capital Damascus and in Idlib.
“It’s going to be the springboard, as a big city, to move to another areas, to liberate other areas from the terrorists,” Assad told Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda in an interview this month. “This is the importance of Aleppo now.”
In an interview with the Swiss SRF 1 TV channel aired Wednesday, Assad said the “whole hysteria” in the West over Aleppo is “because the terrorists are in a bad shape.”
The United Nations had proposed allowing safe passage for jihadist fighters linked to al-Qaeda from eastern areas of Aleppo, where they intermingle with anti-Assad forces backed by the U.S., some European nations and allies in the Middle East. The idea was rejected by the rebels.