MOSCOW — Russian and Syrian warplanes on Tuesday halted their airstrikes on Syria's besieged city of Aleppo in preparation for a temporary truce that Moscow has announced for later in the week, the Russian defense minister said.
According to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, the halt in the strikes should help pave way for militants to leave the eastern rebel-held parts of the contested city.
Both Russian and Syrian air raids on Aleppo were suspended on 10 a.m. Tuesday, Shoigu said. He described the suspension as a precursor for the opening of humanitarian corridors.
Moscow on Monday announced a "humanitarian pause" between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Thursday to allow civilians and militants safe passage out of the city.
At that time, Russian and Syrian militaries will desist from any offensive actions. Syrian rebels, including al-Qaida militants, as well as the wounded and the sick will be allowed to leave to the neighboring rebel-held province of Idlib.
"The early halting of airstrikes is necessary to declare a 'humanitarian pause'," Shoigu said in a televised statement. "It will ... guarantee a safe exit of civilians through six corridors and prepare for the evacuation of the ill and the wounded from the eastern part of Aleppo."
Aleppo, Syria's largest city and once its commercial hub, has been subjected to the most intense aerial bombardment since the start of the Mideast country's conflict in 2011. In recent months, the Syrian army has pressed its offensive into the rebel-held eastern part of the city. Air raids have killed hundreds and caused international outrage.
Mohammed Abu Rajab, an Aleppo resident, said airstrikes on the eastern neighborhoods stopped early Tuesday, just after the city had been subjected to another intense round of air raids.
"There were airstrikes throughout the night," Abu Rajab, who works at a local hospital, said over the telephone.
In Moscow, Shoigu added that Russia is "asking the countries wielding influence with the (Syrian) rebels ... to persuade their leaders to end fighting and leave the city."
He said the Syrian troops will pull back to distances allowing unimpeded exit for those carrying weapons via two corridors, including the main artery of Castello Road.
The Russian initiative also should boost talks between military experts from several nations that are set to open in Geneva on Wednesday, he added.
"Their work will be aimed first of all at separating the 'moderate opposition' from the terrorists and its withdrawal from the eastern part of Aleppo," he said. Russia, like the Syrian government, refers to militants in the Syrian conflict as "terrorists."
During a meeting over the weekend co-chaired by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, foreign ministers from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar said they would work to separate moderate opposition groups in Aleppo from the former al-Qaida affiliate in Syria once known as the Nusra Front.
A Russia-U.S.-brokered cease-fire collapsed last month as the Syrian army launched an offensive on eastern Aleppo under the cover of Russian warplanes.
Russian and Syrian officials have embraced a proposal made earlier this month by the U.N. Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, to allow al-Qaida-linked militants to leave Aleppo in exchange for a truce and a local administration for the eastern districts. Rebels there, along with many residents, have rejected the offer.
Russia's announcement did not include any promises of an extended cease-fire or local administration in and around Aleppo.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner, speaking to reporters in Washington on Monday, expressed doubts about the Russian-Syrian pause.
"If there is actually an eight-hour pause in the unremitting suffering of the people of Aleppo, that would be a good thing," Toner said. "But frankly, it's a bit too little, too late."
Mroue reported from Beirut.