Russia: Humanitarian Syria Routes Open

BEIRUT (AP) -- Russia's Defense Ministry said on Tuesday it was keeping humanitarian corridors out of Syria's Aleppo open following accusations by the U.N. humanitarian chief that warring parties were obstructing medical evacuations from the eastern, rebel-held districts of the city.

Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said six humanitarian corridors out of eastern Aleppo continue to function "around the clock."

Russian and Syrian warplanes, he added, "are not approaching the city and are not carrying out attacks." A total of 48 women and children left eastern Aleppo the previous evening, Konashenkov also said.

Those evacuations could not be independently confirmed. The U.N. has estimated that 275,000 people are trapped by the Syrian government's siege of the rebel-held eastern parts of the contested city.

Fighting resumed in Aleppo over the weekend, with pro-government forces mounting several assaults along the city's front lines after a three-day pause in military operations last week. The attacks have been accompanied by Russian air strikes.

But in contrast to the sweeping bombardment that devastated eastern Aleppo before the pause, clashes this week have been largely confined to the front lines, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group that tracks the civil war in Syria.

Airstrikes on residential districts have decreased since last Tuesday, according to a spokesman for the local Civil Defense search-and-rescue group, when the Russian and Syrian militaries announced they would open safe corridors for civilians and militants out of the east. The spokesman, Ibrahim al-Haj, noted that shelling has not let up.

On Monday, pro-government forces seized a strategic hilltop overlooking the city's southern outskirts, only hours after Aleppo rebels boasted an offensive to break the government's siege was "hours away".

The government's new position on the Bazo hilltop would complicate any rebel push, according to the Observatory's chief, Rami Abdurrahman.

Ammar Sakkar, a military spokesman of the powerful Fastaqim rebel militia in Aleppo, denied the government advance was a setback for rebels and said huge preparations were underway for an "epic" battle in Aleppo.

Also, the Observatory and Aleppo's Civil Defense team said three people were killed in air raids in Uram al-Kubra, a town west of Aleppo. The Observatory said there were other air raids in southern and western Aleppo province. There were no reports of casualties.

NATO, meanwhile, said the alliance launched surveillance flights along Turkey's border with Syria and Iraq to support the international coalition effort against the Islamic State group.

NATO's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels on Tuesday the first flight took place on Oct. 20 and that more would happen soon. The flyovers will help the coalition "to get a better air picture," he said.

The surveillance planes, which are being moved to Turkey from Germany, will help identify aircraft in northern Syria and Iraq and prevent accidents in war-plane filled skies. The Islamic State group and its allies have no aircraft.

The U.S. has said it has evidence that Russian warplanes attacked an aid convoy in Syria last month. Russia has denied the allegations and said a U.S. drone might have done it.

Meanwhile, NATO member Turkey, which has been supporting Syrian opposition forces in their push in northern Syria, carried out airstrikes last week against Kurdish positions in northwestern Aleppo, as they too jostle for territory held by IS in the area.

On Tuesday, a Kurdish leader and news agency say Turkish shelling of the areas continued but there were no reports of new air raids. The Turkish-Kurdish violence in Syria raised tensions in the area. Activists have reported a military buildup for rival groups in the area in recent days, including around Manbij, where Kurdish forces expelled IS fighters this summer.

Ilham Ahmed, a Syrian Kurdish leader in exile, said Turkish shelling of villages in northwestern Aleppo province was backed by reconnaissance planes.

Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency, quoting military officials, said Turkish artillery fired at 75 Islamic State and 15 Syrian Kurdish militia targets. No aerial raids were conducted.

The Observatory said Turkey-backed fighting groups took control of two villages to the east, closer to IS stronghold al-Bab.

(KA)