BEIRUT (AP) — Two Russian soldiers and a Syrian journalist were injured in Syria’s Aleppo Friday when mortar rounds struck one of the exit corridors designated for the evacuation of rebels and residents from the eastern besieged part of the city during a temporary halt in fighting announced by Russia.
For several hours into the 10-hour halt, no one approached the corridors, where webcam footage shared by the Russian Defense Ministry also showed no activities there. By early afternoon however, about four hours before the halt expired, Syrian state media said seven mortar shells from the rebel-held side of the city hit one of the corridors in the northern part of the city.
The Russian Defense Ministry said the two Russian servicemen were lightly wounded during a rebel shelling of the humanitarian corridor in the western section of the Castello road in north Aleppo. They were evacuated and their lives are not in danger, the statement said.
Syrian state TV said a correspondent for a pro-government station was wounded by shrapnel.
The halt in fighting was unilaterally announced by Russia. The Syrian government has largely abided by the halt and there has been no reported shelling or violence in the besieged part of the city. There was no U.N. monitoring at the corridors.
U.N. officials at a regular news conference in Geneva would not directly comment on the Russian initiative, but reiterated that security conditions were not adequate for deliveries of aid into eastern Aleppo and stepped up calls for a nationwide truce — not just in the city.
Asked whether the Russian plan offered a window of opportunity for humanitarian aid convoys, spokesman Jens Laerke of the U.N. aid agency OCHA said: “I’m trying my best not to comment on the actual initiative, but to state what the situation is.”
Jessy Chahine, a spokeswoman for U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, added: “Anything that contributes to saving lives is more than welcome.”
“The special envoy is against the evacuation of civilians unless it is voluntary,” she added.
Earlier, Syrian state TV showed footage from one of the designated corridors with buses parked to transport anyone coming out of eastern Aleppo. Police and an Islamic cleric were waiting at the crossing.
The Observatory said that by midday no one had used the corridors. A Civil Defense volunteer in Aleppo, Ibrahim al-Haj, said that no left in the early afternoon either.
Webcam footage from the corridors shared by the Russian Defense Ministry also showed no activities there. The U.N. estimates that 275,000 people are trapped in the eastern, rebel-held part of the divided city of Aleppo.
Amnesty International said fears for the safety of civilians in the city are mounting amid “the looming threat of a resumption and a possible escalation of the fighting” once the humanitarian pause expires.
“The scale of the devastation in eastern Aleppo in recent months has been chilling,” said Samah Hadid, with Amnesty’s office in Beirut. “Given the track record of the forces fighting in Aleppo – particularly government forces – Amnesty International fears there will be very high civilian casualties as Syrian forces, supported by Russia, escalate attacks in order to seize control of the city.”
“The temporary humanitarian pause announced by Russia is no substitute for unfettered and impartial humanitarian access and ensuring protection of civilians in the longer term,” Hadid added.
A rebel spokesman, Yasser al-Youssef from the Nour el-Din el-Zinki group, and an eastern Aleppo resident, Wissam Zarqa, said warplanes were flying over the area. Al-Youssef also said the planes continued to target rebel supply lines in western Aleppo province.
The Qasioun news agency reported that the planes fired missiles on the towns of Urem al-Kubra and Kfar Naha in western Aleppo, wounding several people.
After midday Friday, airstrikes hit the western town of Atareb, about 24 kilometers (15 miles) from the city of Aleppo, killing at least three children, according to the activist platform Aleppo Today TV and the Revolutionary Forces of Syria.
Russia’s offer of a 10-hour “humanitarian pause,” announced earlier this week, has raised speculation that a major offensive may be planned once the pause expires on Friday evening.
Overnight, leaflets from the Syrian Armed Forces were dropped over eastern Aleppo, a recurrent practice during previous pauses, urging residents and rebels to take advantage of the pause that started at 9 a.m. and leave the city. Activists posted online one such leaflet, which gives instructions to the residents on how to leave the area safely, hands raised.
There has been no official word from Russia on what would happen once the humanitarian pause expires. Last month, pauses expired with no resumption of airstrikes, which Russia said it halted on the eastern side of the city. Later, residents reported airstrikes on the front line with western Aleppo.
A Russian lawmaker on Thursday told the private Russian news agency Interfax that a “purge” of the eastern part of the city would begin if the pause produced no results. Russian President Vladimir Putin urged the opposition fighters to use the passages offered to leave the city.
Russia recently dispatched its aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, which is now in the Mediterranean and heading for the Syrian coast. Its presence suggests that Russia may be intending to escalate its assault on rebel-held parts of the northern Syrian city.
Al-Youssef said the opposition fighters are anticipating a “violent air campaign” on the eastern part of the city when the pause expires.
“The Russians are exerting more pressure on the rebellious people of Aleppo to get them out of the city,” al-Youssef told The Associated Press in an exchange of messages. “This will not happen.”
The pause comes amid a rebel offensive on the western, government-held part of the city, which began last week. Western Aleppo is home to more than 1 million residents, including people displaced from eastern Aleppo. A lobby of missiles on that part of the city killed 12 civilians on Thursday, state media said.
Amnesty’s Hadid also said armed groups have put civilians in western parts of the city of Aleppo at risk “from the repeated, unlawful use of imprecise explosive weapons.”
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.
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