iStock/Thinkstock(MOSCOW) — An eight-hour “humanitarian pause” declared by Russia in Aleppo, Syria, during which Moscow has told fighters and civilians to leave besieged rebel districts, has begun. But doubts have already been raised about the credibility of the pause, with the United Nations saying it needs longer to get relief in and the United States suggesting it may be “too little, too late.”
Meanwhile, several residents of the besieged part of Aleppo say that leaving is not a real option and that they view the cease-fire as a media stunt.
“There is no sound of planes, but we can still hear shootings on the ground,” Wissam Zarqa, a teacher in the besieged Aleppo’s al-Mashhad neighborhood, told ABC News. “The government is still trying to advance. As long as fighting and clashes are ongoing it is not possible for civilians to leave. Some elderly people who can’t keep living under siege might want to leave but they can’t because it’s not safe.”
Even if he felt that it were safe for him to leave, he would choose to stay, he said.
“We don’t feel like leaving our homes and becoming refugees,” he said. “None of my friends are considering leaving.”
Russia’s military said it and the Syrian government were halting bombings from the air on Tuesday to prepare for the pause, which was announced on Monday, offering a brief respite from relentless airstrikes on the rebel-held part of the besieged city that has seen hundreds killed in recent weeks.
On Monday, 14 members of the same family, including eight children, were killed after their home was hit by an airstrike, according to activists in Aleppo and the White Helmets, a volunteer civil defense group that operates in rebel-held Syria. Humanitarian organizations have criticized the Syrian and Russian governments for the intense airstrikes and for reported use of chemical weapons and bunker-buster bombs, which can target people sheltering underground.
Russia’s defense ministry said the pause was being held so civilians and rebel fighters could leave the city, saying two corridors would be opened for fighters and six more for civilians. The ministry said that Syrian government troops would pull back to allow fighters past, and pledged to guarantee the safety of civilians leaving and to allow aid organizations into the city to provide relief.
But within minutes of the pause’s formal start, at 8 a.m. local time, a senior Russian diplomat condemned rebel groups for refusing to leave and accused them of keeping civilians there as human shields. The U.N. and aid groups also warned that the pause was not sufficient to achieve the relief Moscow was suggesting.
Since July, the city of Aleppo has been the center of intense fighting and is currently undergoing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, according to the U.N. Intense shelling has led to the destruction of hospitals, schools, roads and markets and severely affected civilian access to water and electricity.
The U.N.’s humanitarian spokesman said that while it welcomed any pause in the violence around Aleppo, more time was needed if relief workers were to be able to reach the city.
“We will use whatever pause we have to do whatever we can,” Stephane Dujarric, a U.N. spokesman, told reporters in New York. “Obviously there is a need for a longer pause to get trucks in.”
The international aid group, Doctors Without Borders, also said the pause was too short for them to evacuate the wounded safely and to reach those in the city.
Another U.N. spokesman said that Russia had informed them that it intended to hold two more eight-hour pauses on “consecutive days” this week. Russia’s military has yet to announce that publicly.
Jens Laerke of the U.N. humanitarian coordinator OCHA said that without guarantees for relief workers’ safety from all sides in the city it was impossible for them to enter.
Russia has meanwhile said it will also begin work on defining which groups should be labeled terrorists and which can be considered moderate opposition in Aleppo, without the participation of the U.S. Agreeing upon which groups could be labeled as terrorists, particularly the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, had been a key condition for the cease-fire deal that collapsed in late September amid renewed bombing by Russian and Syrian government aircraft on Aleppo.
Russia has previously been disdainful of any distinction between moderate rebel groups and those recognized as terrorists, saying it was the obligation of the U.S., which is supporting some of the rebels to do so. The U.S. ceased cooperation with Russia following the cease-fire’s collapse, accusing Russia of not working in good faith.
Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, said on Tuesday that Russian experts were already in Geneva, Switzerland, to begin discussions with the U.N. and other countries that have supported the rebels to begin work on identifying the different groups operating inside the war-torn country.
The U.S. and United Kingdom have both voiced skepticism about the pause, suggesting it is insufficient.
Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, rejected the Russian plan as currently not credible: “A durable and convincing cease-fire must be delivered by the Assad regime before any such proposal can conceivably be made to work.”
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Tuesday that a pause would “be a good thing” but that after months of “near-constant bombing,” intended “to starve out and drive out the opposition and civilians,” it was a “bit too little, too late.”
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