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Martial Trezzini

Syrian military starts withdraw from vital passage to Aleppo

Profile image for By Jamey Keaten and Philip Issa
By Jamey Keaten and Philip Issa

BEIRUT — Syria’s military began withdrawing from a major artery to Aleppo late Thursday as the U.N. envoy accused President Bashar Assad’s government of obstructing aid access to the contested city.

A monitoring group reported three civilian fatalities, the first since the U.S.-Russian-brokered cease-fire took effect three days ago.

Meanwhile, Russia was expected to deploy its forces along Aleppo’s Castello Road to ensure safe passage for humanitarian convoys to the city’s opposition-held quarters. It would be the most overt participation by Russian ground forces in the Syrian war, underscoring Moscow’s position as power broker in the conflict. Russia intervened with its air force on the side of the Assad government last year, turning the tide of the war in his favor.

As part of the truce deal, the rebels and the Syrian government are supposed to agree to the deployment of a security force to protect checkpoints along the route to Aleppo to ensure aid delivery to the city’s opposition sector, which has been besieged by Russian-backed government forces since July. The U.N. estimates about a quarter million people are trapped inside.

However, the U.N. envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said despite the dramatic drop in violence since the cease-fire took effect on Monday, the humanitarian aid flow that was supposed to follow had not materialized.

Speaking in Geneva, de Mistura blamed Assad’s government for the delay.

He said the Syrian government had not provided the necessary “facilitation letters,” or permits, to allow the aid convoys to reach opposition areas, disappointing even Russia, the Syrian president’s key backer.

De Mistura said 40 aid trucks were ready to move and the U.N. would prioritize delivery to the embattled rebel-held eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo.

“That is what makes a difference for the people, apart from seeing no more bombs or mortar shelling taking place,” he said of the aid deliveries that are supposed to be part of the truce deal.

“It is particularly regrettable. … These are days which we should have used for convoys to move … because there is no fighting,” he said.

Jan Egeland, the top humanitarian aid official in de Mistura’s office, said the U.N. could reach its target areas in the country within a “few days” once it received authorization.

“Our appeal is the following,” Egeland said. “Can well-fed, grown men please stop putting political, bureaucratic and procedural roadblocks in the way of brave humanitarian workers who are willing and able to go to serve women, children and wounded civilians in besieged and cross-fire areas?”

Activists reported the cease-fire was holding despite some violations, though the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group warned the rate of violations had escalated and three civilians were killed, including two children.

The Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said one girl was killed when missiles fired by rebels hit a village in the southern province of Quneitra. Another child died of wounds sustained from a sniper fire in al-Masharfeh, a government-held neighborhood in Aleppo city. The third casualty, according to the Observatory, was a civilian who also died by sniper fire in the rebel-held part of Aleppo.

Russia’s military announced Thursday evening that Syrian government forces had begun withdrawing from the route to Aleppo, though the Pentagon said it had no indication of a withdrawal. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group also reported the government was leaving the area.

The rebels were expected to follow suit, according to U.N. and government officials, though there was no indication they had done so late Thursday.