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Dec 5, 5:35 PM EST

2 Russian nurses killed in rebel shelling of Syria's Aleppo


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ALEPPO, Syria (AP) -- Rebel shelling killed two Russian nurses and eight civilians Monday in Aleppo, and a Russian fighter jet crashed as it was returning to an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean after a sortie over Syria, but the pilot ejected safely, Moscow officials said.

The shelling that targeted government-controlled western Aleppo was one of the most intense in recent days. It coincided with a crushing air and ground assault that has seen forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad recapture more than half of opposition-held eastern Aleppo.

Russia and militias allied with Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah have been staunch supporters of Assad in his country's bitter civil war, now in its sixth year.

The shelling initially killed one female nurse and wounded two Russian medics working in a field hospital, a Russian officer told reporters in the northern city. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Another nurse who was wounded later died, the Russian Defense Ministry said.

"The Russian and Syrian doctors tried their best to save her," Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said in an emailed statement. Another Russian, a pediatrician, remains in critical condition.

Konashenkov urged international organizations such as the Red Cross to condemn the attack on the health workers "who were doing their medical duty to help the civilians of Aleppo."

At the U.N. Security Council, meanwhile, Russia and China blocked a draft resolution demanding a seven-day truce in Aleppo to evacuate the sick and wounded and to provide humanitarian aid workers time to get food and medicine into the city. Russia has repeatedly blocked action in the Security Council over Syria.

Russian news agencies quoted Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as saying talks would be held with the United States this week in Geneva on a rebel withdrawal from eastern Aleppo. The Russians have tried in the past to coax rebels into leaving, setting up corridors out of the district, but the fighters have refused because they want to retain control over parts of the city. Some fear the Russians and their Syrian allies would not ensure their safety.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said he couldn't confirm that U.S.-Russian talks on Syria would take place this week as planned

"The basic challenge is the same," Toner told reporters, saying the U.S. and its partners would have to resolve concerns about al-Qaida-linked rebels fighting in Aleppo, while Syria and Russia would have to bring about a credible truce in the city that allows humanitarian aid in.

"There's a moderate Syrian opposition that should not and does not deserve to be bombed into submission," Toner said.

Monday's fighting was the worst in days. Syrian government artillery, tanks and warplanes pounded rebel-held parts of the city for hours. The airstrikes were so intense that buildings on the western side of the city shook. Opposition activists and rescue workers said four people were killed in a barrel bomb attack on a rebel-held district, and three more were trapped in the rubble.

Insurgents also struck back in the government-held western parts of the city with dozens of mortar shells. At least eight civilians were killed in different neighborhoods, according to state news agency SANA. Among the dead were two children and four women, said the opposition Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Thick smoke billowed from behind Aleppo's famous citadel where Syrian forces were advancing from the west and east to try to cut rebel-held districts in half.

On the city's southern edge, heavy machine gun fire could be heard.

An Associated Press team in government-controlled Aleppo said the attack on the Russian field hospital left the large tent charred and beds overturned. The shelling struck shortly before the inauguration of makeshift clinic. The AP crew was accompanied by representatives of the Syrian army.

Konashenkov said an unspecified number of residents at the field hospital were wounded, and he accused the U.S., Britain and France of telling the rebels the location of the hospital.

"The blood of our soldiers is on the hands of those who ordered this murder - those who created, nurtured and armed these beasts in human form and named them the 'opposition,'" he said.

Asked about the accusation, the British Defense Ministry declined to comment.

The Russian Defense Ministry also said the Su-33 fighter jet crashed in the Mediterranean as it returned to the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov after a sortie over Syria. "Because of the failure of the arrester system's cable, the Su-33 fighter rolled off the deck," the ministry said.

The pilot ejected successfully and was unharmed, the ministry said, adding that Russian military operations over Syria would not be affected by the incident.

This is the second loss of an aircraft from the Admiral Kuznetsov since it arrived off Syria last month. A MiG-29 crashed into the sea Nov. 15 while trying to land on the carrier.

In a ground offensive that began last week, Syrian government forces seized large parts of the Aleppo enclave that have been under rebel control since 2012. Monday's fighting was most intense near the dividing line between eastern and western Aleppo as government and allied troops pushed their way from the eastern flank, reaching less than 1 kilometer (half a mile) from the citadel in the center of the city.

Rebel fighters clashed with advancing troops and also lobbed mortars and shells into the government-controlled part of Aleppo to the west.

The opposition-run Thiqa News agency and the Syrian Civil Defense said four civilians were killed in the rebel-held Zabadiyeh district when barrel bombs were dropped there.

In nearby rebel-controlled Idlib province, Syrian opposition activists said Russian and Syrian aircraft stepped up assaults, a day after air raids killed more than 60 people.

The activist-run Local Coordination Committees said airstrikes on Monday hit the towns of Binnish, Maarat Nasaan and Saraqib, as well as the provincial capital, Idlib. The network said three children were killed, blaming the attacks on Russian aircraft.

Rebels also sent rockets into the predominantly Shiite towns of Foua and Kfarya, in Idlib province. Online video posted by activists showed clouds of smoke rising and wreckage sustained by the blasts.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 288 civilians have been killed in the province since Oct. 20, when Syrian government and Russian aircraft intensified airstrikes. The Syrian Civil Defense in Idlib said 65 civilians were killed in Sunday's airstrikes across the province, including attacks on two rural marketplaces that killed dozens.

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Associated Press writers Howard Amos and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed.

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