Syrian government advances despite rebel cease-fire offer
BEIRUT (AP) -- Syria's government ignored a rebel cease-fire proposal for Aleppo on Wednesday as its forces captured new neighborhoods around the city center and squeezed some 200,000 tired and frightened civilians into a shattered and rapidly shrinking opposition enclave.
Facing a punishing and brutal defeat, rebel factions proposed a five-day cease-fire for the eastern parts of the city to evacuate the wounded and civilians wishing to flee.
"The artillery shelling is non-stop," a resident told The Associated Press by messaging service. He asked to conceal his name out of fear for his safety.
"The humanitarian situation is really tough. There are corpses on the streets. ... There is very little food. Bread is distributed every two or three days, six pieces per family. That's small, not enough for breakfast," he said.
Government officials had not directly addressed the rebel proposal by the evening.
"The decision to liberate all of Syria has been taken, and that includes Aleppo," Syrian President Bashar Assad told the state newspaper al-Watan.
Brig. Gen. Zeid al-Saleh told state TV that rebels must leave Aleppo or face death.
The Syrian government and its ally Russia have rejected previous cease-fires for the war-torn city, keeping up the military offensive that has forced rebel retreats and displaced at least 30,000 civilians in the past 11 days, according to U.N. figures. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met Wednesday in Hamburg, Germany but did not release any statements.
The rebels made no offer to pull out of Aleppo, though their proposal promised to negotiate the fate of the city when the humanitarian crisis eases. A rebel spokesman said al-Qaida-linked group Fatah al-Sham Front, which has a limited presence among the fighters, will abide by the proposal.
Government forces and regional militias fighting alongside them, meanwhile, captured new ground in Aleppo's old city and its Bab al-Nairab district, home to one of the city's main water stations, according to monitoring groups and state media.
The rebels continued their shelling of the western government-held districts of the city. Syria's state news agency reported that 12 people were killed by mortar and rocket fire landing in western Aleppo.
Syrian military media said the government had captured three-quarters of the opposition's former enclave Tuesday. The U.N. estimated 275,000 people were still residing there before the start of the ground offensive.
The government is supported by Lebanon's militant group Hezbollah, Iraqi and Iranian militias, and Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards. Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV broadcast from Aleppo's iconic citadel in the late afternoon.
With the latest gains, the endgame for Aleppo, which has been carved up between the government and the rebel side for the past four years, appears to draw even closer. If Aleppo - the country's former commercial hub - is captured by government troops, it would be a turning point in the conflict, putting the five largest cities in Syria and the coastal region back under state control.
The Syrian government has been demanding the complete evacuation of all rebels from eastern Aleppo, but locals involved in the negotiations with the rebel factions said this has not been seriously considered.
"There's no point to the civilians staying without the protection of the Free Syrian Army," said Hamza al-Khatib, the spokesman for the civil society ad hoc Committee to Save Aleppo. He said he expected about half of the remaining population would evacuate under the terms of the proposal, if given the chance.
Al-Khatib himself, who is the hospital director for the now debilitated Quds Hospital, said he would remain. "If there is even one person remaining, then it is my duty to stay with them," he said.
Capt. Abdel-Salam Abdel-Razek of the rebel Nour el-Din el-Zinki faction - one of the largest operating inside Aleppo - said the cease-fire proposal was driven by humanitarian concerns.
The proposal called for the immediate evacuation of 500 seriously wounded residents and for allowing civilians wishing to leave to head to rural northern Aleppo province, where there is almost no government presence. Abdel-Razek said this proposed humanitarian pause would be monitored by the United Nations.
Wissam Zarqa, an English teacher in eastern Aleppo and an outspoken government opponent, said the rebel retreat from large parts of Old Aleppo was "concerning."
"We are exhausted. There is a lot of death and unprecedented destruction," he said.
Leaders of the U.S., Britain, Germany, Italy, France, and Canada also called for an immediate cease-fire for the city to allow the U.N. to deliver aid to the remaining besieged opposition districts.
"We condemn the actions of the Syrian regime and its foreign backers, especially Russia, for their obstruction of humanitarian aid," the leaders said in a joint statement, adding that hospitals and schools appeared to have been targeted "in an attempt to wear people down."
They called on the U.N. to investigate reports of war crimes and accused Russia of blocking efforts to halt the bloodshed.
The display of diplomatic unity appeared timed to build support for the rebels' proposed ceasefire, though White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the statement was not in response to any existing proposals to address the violence, but was drafted to demonstrate "clear, unified, international support" for a diplomatic arrangement to reduce bloodshed and allow humanitarian aid to flow.
Rebel defenses in eastern Aleppo have collapsed rapidly in the face of a massive government assault.
On Tuesday, Syrian government forces captured Aleppo's centrally located al-Shaar neighborhood, securing about 45 square kilometers (17 square miles) of the besieged enclave less than two weeks after launching their ground offensive.
The offensive was preceded by an intensive bombing campaign that knocked out medical facilities and left the civilian population reeling. According to the Observatory, 369 civilians, including 45 children, have been killed in eastern Aleppo since Nov. 15. The Observatory said 92 civilians, including 34 children, were killed by rebel shelling in government-controlled western Aleppo.
Also Wednesday, the state SANA news agency said several Israeli surface-to-surface missiles struck a military airport west of Damascus. No injuries were reported.
SANA said the missiles fell within the perimeter of the Mezzeh military airport, the main air base for the capital. The base has come previously under rebel fire.
It was the second such Israeli strike into Syria recently, according to the Syrian government, following two missiles fired from Lebanese airspace toward the outskirts of Damascus last week.
But Wednesday's attack is believed to be the first from Israel into the vicinity of Damascus in years. Israel is widely believed to have carried out a number of airstrikes in Syria in the past few years that have targeted advanced weapons systems, including Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles and Iranian-made missiles.
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman did not acknowledge any responsibility for the strike and reiterated his government's position not to get involved in the Syrian war.
Associated Press writers Dominique Soguel in Istanbul, Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.