Bombing kills 18 in Afghanistan on eve of Eid ceasefire

A member of Afghanistan's Special Forces unit jumps from a wall during patrol in Pandola village near the site of a U.S. bombing in the Achin district of Nangarhar, eastern Afghanistan, April 14, 2017. REUTERS/Parwiz

KABUL (Reuters) – At least 18 people, including Afghan security forces personnel, were killed in a suspected car-bombing in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday, hours before a three-day ceasefire was to begin in the country for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, officials said.

The ceasefire, announced by the Taliban, comes at a time violence has risen across the war-torn country as U.S.-brokered peace talks between the militant group and an Afghan government-mandated committee await the completion of a prisoner exchange between the two sides.

The Taliban denied responsibility for the bombing in a statement from spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.

The explosion targeted Afghan security forces in Pul-e-Alan, the capital of the eastern province of Logar and civilian casualties are also feared, according to Shahpoor Ahmadzai, the spokesman for the provincial police.

He added it was unclear whether it was a car or suicide bombing, but that security forces had gathered for duty in the city to prepare for security measures for Eid al-Fitr, which will be celebrated in Afghanistan on Friday.

The head of the province’s council, Hasib Stanekkzai, told Reuters it was a car-bombing and put the toll at 18 dead and 22 injured.

Since the U.S.-Taliban agreement in February, 3,560 Afghan security forces personnel have been killed in attacks by militants, according to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said in a report this week that more than 1,280 Afghan civilians had been killed in the first six months of the year, mainly as a result of fighting between Afghan government forces and the Taliban.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad was in Kabul on Wednesday to discuss the need to keep violence down by all sides after the ceasefire and the completion of the prisoner exchange, according to a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul and Ahmad Sultan in Nangarhar; Writing by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Mark Potter)

Russia, Turkey agree ceasefire deal for Syria’s Idlib

By Vladimir Soldatkin and Maria Kiselyova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Turkey and Russia agreed a ceasefire deal on Thursday in Syria’s Idlib region, their two leaders said after lengthy talks in Moscow to contain a conflict which has displaced nearly a million people in three months.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, standing next to his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan, said he hoped their agreement would lead to a halt of military action in Syria’s last rebel stronghold in the far northwest of the country.

“I express hope that these agreements will serve as a good basis for a cessation of military activity in the Idlib de-escalation zone (and) stop the suffering of the peaceful population and the growing humanitarian crisis,” Putin said.

Erdogan told reporters the truce would come into effect at midnight on Thursday. “We will work together to supply aid for the Syrians in need,” he said, adding that Turkey retained the right “to respond to all (Syrian) regime attacks in the field.”

Russia and Turkey back opposing sides in Syria’s nine-year conflict, with Moscow supporting President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey backing some rebel groups. They have in recent years reached several ceasefire deals in Idlib which have collapsed.

Russian air strikes have propelled an offensive by Assad’s forces in Idlib that sparked what the United Nations says may be the worst humanitarian crisis yet in a war that has driven millions from their homes and killed hundreds of thousands.

The Russian military has, however, repeatedly played down any talk of a refugee crisis and accused Turkey of violating international law by pouring enough troops into Idlib to make up a mechanised division.

Turkey, which has the second largest army in the transatlantic NATO alliance, has funnelled troops and equipment into the region in recent weeks to resist the Syrian government advance and prevent a wave of refugees over its southern border.

Russia also raced to reinforce its troops in Syria by sea and air before the Putin-Erdogan talks.

MORE DEATHS

The Kremlin said the two leaders had spoken for three hours on their own before being joined by their officials.

The two leaders also agreed to establish a secure corridor near the M4 highway, which runs east to west through Idlib, and hold joint patrols along the road from March 15.

In a joint statement read out by the Turkish and Russian foreign ministers, the two sides said the corridor would stretch 6 km to the north and 6 km to the south of the M4 – effectively advancing Russia’s presence further north into Idlib.

They said their defence ministers would agree on the parameters of the corridor within seven days.

The fighting, which has raised the prospect of a direct clash between Russia and Turkey, has killed 60 Turkish troops in the region since last month, including the death of a Turkish soldier reported by a regional governor on Thursday.

Putin expressed his regret to Erdogan about the recent killing of 34 Turkish troops in an air strike, saying the Syrian military had not known of their location.

Ahead of the talks, at least 16 civilians were killed when Russian air strikes hit a gathering of displaced people near the town of Maarat Misrin in Idlib, according to civil defence workers helping clear the rubble and search for survivors.

Russia denies targeting civilians.

Two witnesses also reported seeing more Turkish military reinforcements deploying into Idlib, and Russia’s RIA news agency said rebels had resumed shelling the strategic town of Saraqeb in Idlib where Russian military police are based.

The Turkish defence ministry said it had destroyed four tanks, five rocket launchers and a dozen military vehicles in artillery and air strikes in the last 24 hours.

Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot handle more. Seeking to extract more funding and support from Europe over Idlib, Ankara said last week it would no longer abide by a 2016 deal in which it stopped migrants crossing into the European Union in return for billions of euros in aid.

(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Andrey Ostroukh and Tom Balmforth in Moscow, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Writing by Jonathan Spicer and Andrew Osborn; Editing by Dominic Evans and Mark Heinrich)

Pence announces ceasefire deal with Erdogan to end Turkey’s Syria offensive

Pence announces ceasefire deal with Erdogan to end Turkey’s Syria offensive
By Orhan Coskun and Humeyra Pamuk

ANKARA (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Thursday he had reached a deal with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for a ceasefire in northern Syria to end an eight-day-old Turkish offensive against Kurdish-led forces.

Speaking after crisis talks with Erdogan in Ankara, Pence said that under the deal all military operations would be paused to allow a pullback of Kurdish YPG militia over a 120-hour period. The Turkish military operation would end once that withdrawal was complete, Pence told a news conference.

“Today the United States and Turkey have agreed to a ceasefire in Syria,” Pence told a news conference after more than four hours of talks at the presidential palace in Ankara.

“The Turkish side will pause Operation Peace Spring in order to allow for the withdrawal of YPG forces from the safe zone for 120 hours,” Pence said. “All military operations under Operation Peace Spring will be paused, and Operation Peace Spring will be halted entirely on completion of the withdrawal.”

Pence said U.S. forces in the region had already begun to facilitate a safe disengagement of YPG units.

The deal struck with Erdogan also provided for Turkey not to engage in military operations in the flashpoint Syrian border town of Kobani.

Pence said the United States and Turkey had committed to a peaceful resolution of Ankara’s demand for a “safe zone” in northern Syria near Turkey’s border, one of the objectives of the Turkish offensive.

Pence added that he had spoken to U.S. President Donald Trump after the talks and that Trump had expressed his gratitude for the ceasefire accord.

The deal was a major contribution to relations between NATO allies Turkey and the United States, which have become strained in recent months.

After Pence and Erdogan met at the presidential palace, talks between Turkish and U.S. delegations continued for over four hours – well past their expected duration.

Pence’s mission was to persuade Erdogan to halt the internationally condemned offensive, but Turkish officials had said before the meeting began that the action would continue regardless.

The Turkish assault has created a new humanitarian crisis in Syria with 200,000 civilians taking flight, a security alert over thousands of Islamic State fighters abandoned in Kurdish jails, and a political maelstrom at home for President Donald Trump.

Trump has been accused of abandoning Kurdish-led fighters, Washington’s main partners in the battle to dismantle Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Syria, by withdrawing troops from the border as Ankara launched its offensive on Oct. 9.

Trump had defended his move on Wednesday as “strategically brilliant”. He said he thought Pence and Erdogan would have a successful meeting, but warned of sanctions and tariffs that “will be devastating to Turkey’s economy” otherwise.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Ellen Francis in Beirut and Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Dominic Evans and Mark Heinrich)

Explainer: Is Yemen finally on the road to peace?

FILE PHOTO: Boys walk amid ruins of houses during the conflict in the northwestern city of Saada, Yemen November 22, 2018. Picture taken November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Naif Rahma/File Photo

By Aziz El Yaakoubi and Mohammed Ghobari

DUBAI/ADEN (Reuters) – Weeks of U.N. shuttle diplomacy and Western pressure delivered a breakthrough in Yemen peace efforts when the warring parties last week agreed to cease fighting in a contested Red Sea port city and withdraw forces.

The challenge lies in securing an orderly troop withdrawal from Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis facing starvation, amid deep mistrust among the parties.

At the same time, the United Nations must prepare for critical discussions on a wider truce and a framework for political negotiations to end the conflict.

The nearly four-year-old war, which has killed tens of thousands of people, pits the Iran-aligned Houthi group against other Yemeni factions fighting alongside the Saudi-led coalition trying to restore the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The Houthis, who ousted Hadi’s administration from the capital Sanaa in 2014, and their coalition foes are due to start implementing the Hodeidah ceasefire on Tuesday.

Coalition leaders Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are under pressure from Western allies including the United States and Britain, which supply arms and intelligence to the Sunni Muslim alliance, to end the war as Riyadh comes under scrutiny after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

People gather near stalls with used tools on a street in Hodeidah, Yemen December 15, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

People gather near stalls with used tools on a street in Hodeidah, Yemen December 15, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

WHY IS HODEIDAH SO IMPORTANT?

It is the main port used to feed Yemen’s 30 million people and has been the focus of fighting this year, raising global fears that a full-scale assault could cut off supply lines and lead to mass starvation. The war and the ensuing economic collapse has left 15.9 million people facing severe hunger.

The Houthis currently control the city. Coalition-backed Yemeni forces have massed on the outskirts in an offensive aimed at seizing the seaport. Their aim is to weaken the group by cutting off its main supply line.

The alliance bogged down in a military stalemate, also wants to secure the coast along the Red Sea, one of the most important trade routes in the world for oil tankers.

The coalition captured the southern port of Aden in 2015 and a string of ports on the western coast, but the Houthis control most towns and cities in Yemen, including Hodeidah and Sanaa.

Analysts say implementing the agreement is important, as any lapse in momentum could be used by the coalition as a justification to resume its offensive on Hodeidah.

WHERE DO THINGS STAND NOW?

Griffiths said when the deal was announced on Thursday that troop withdrawal from the port should begin “within days” and later from the city. International monitors would be deployed and all armed forces would pull back completely within 21 days.

The UAE has massed thousands of Yemeni forces — drawn from southern separatists, local units from the Red Sea coastal plain and a battalion led by a nephew of late former president Ali Abdullah Saleh — on the outskirts of Hodeidah.

A U.N.-chaired committee including both sides would oversee the withdrawal of forces. The United Nations has said it would play a leading role in the port, but the agreement did not spell out who would run the city.

In remarks illustrating the risks of a resumption of the bloodshed in Hodeidah, each side has said the city would ultimately fall under their control.

Griffiths has asked the U.N. Security Council to urgently pass a resolution backing deployment of a robust monitoring regime, headed by retired Dutch Major General Patrick Cammaert.

The envoy is also working on securing other confidence-building steps hanging over from the peace talks, including reopening Sanaa airport and supporting the central bank.

WHAT’S THE NEXT STEP TO PEACE?

A second round of talks is due to be held in January on a framework for negotiations and transitional governing body.

The Houthis, who have no traction in the south, want a meaningful role in Yemen’s government and to rebuild their stronghold of Saada in the north of the country, analysts said.

The analysts say Saudi Arabia can live with a Houthi political role as long as they disarm. Riyadh says it does not want a military movement like Lebanon’s Iran-allied Hezbollah near its borders.

“Moving forward, the inclusion of key factions that have so far been excluded from the process will be key,” said Adam Baron of the European Council for Foreign Relations.

Yemen’s fractious armed groups and parties, numerous before the war, have proliferated further since 2015, and each has their own agenda. The war also revived old strains between North and South Yemen, formerly separate countries which united into a single state in 1990 under slain former president Saleh.

Southern separatists resented concentration of resources in the north. Some of the Shi’ite Zaydi sect chafed as their north heartland became impoverished and in the late 1990s formed the Houthi group, which fought the army and forged ties with Iran. Jihadists set up an al Qaeda wing.

Mass pro-democracy protests in 2011 forced Saleh to step down after some of his former allies turned on him and the army split. His deputy Hadi was elected to a two-year term to oversee a democratic transition but was undermined.

In 2014, the Houthis seized Sanaa aided by Saleh loyalists, forcing Hadi to share power. When a federal constitution was proposed, both Houthis and southern separatists rejected it.

The Houthis arrested Hadi in 2015, but he escaped and fled to Aden. The coalition then entered the war on Hadi’s side.

(Additional reporting and writing by Ghaida Ghantous, Editing by William Maclean)

Scores poisoned in Aleppo gas attack, Syria and Russia blame rebels

A woman breathes through an oxygen mask after what the Syrian state media said was a suspected toxic gas attack in Aleppo, Syria November 24, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

By Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) – More than 100 people were wounded in Syria’s Aleppo late on Saturday in a suspected toxic gas attack which the government and its ally, Russia, blamed on insurgents.

A health official in Aleppo said victims suffered breathing difficulties, eye inflammation and other symptoms suggesting the use of chlorine gas. Rebel officials denied the allegations and said their forces did not possess chemical weapons.

Russia’s defense ministry said on Sunday its warplanes bombed militants in the insurgent stronghold of Idlib who it accused of firing poison gas at Aleppo.

Major-General Igor Konashenkov said Moscow sent advance warning to Ankara, which backs some rebel factions and helped broker a ceasefire in Idlib.

A monitoring group said air strikes hit rebel territory in northwest Syria on Sunday for the first time since Russia and Turkey agreed to a buffer zone there in September.

In Aleppo city, which the government controls, the shells had spread a strong stench and caused breathing problems, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said.

State news agency SANA said on Sunday 107 people were injured, including children, after militants hit three districts with projectiles containing gases that caused choking.

It marks the highest such casualty toll in Aleppo since government forces and their allies clawed back the city from rebels nearly two years ago.

“We can not know the kinds of gases but we suspected chlorine and treated patients on this basis because of the symptoms,” Zaher Batal, the head of the Aleppo Doctors Syndicate, told Reuters.

Hospitals had discharged many people overnight. Batal said this was the first gas attack against civilians in the city since the conflict erupted more than seven years ago.

People stand in front of a hospital after what the Syrian state media said was a suspected toxic gas attack in Aleppo, Syria November 24, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

People stand in front of a hospital after what the Syrian state media said was a suspected toxic gas attack in Aleppo, Syria November 24, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

STRETCHERS AND OXYGEN MASKS

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and his Russian counterpart agreed on Sunday that “recent provocations” were aimed at harming the agreement on Idlib, the ministry said.

“There was an exchange of views to the effect that … they could continue and that one needed to be ready for them,” the ministry said in a statement.

Nobody has claimed the Aleppo attack so far.

“The explosive (shells) contain toxic gases that led to choking among civilians,” the city’s police chief Issam al-Shilli told state media.

Pictures and footage on SANA showed medical workers carrying patients on stretchers and helping them with oxygen masks.

Syria’s foreign ministry urged the U.N. Security Council to condemn and punish the attack.

Abdel-Salam Abdel-Razak, an official from the Nour el-Din al-Zinki insurgent faction, said rebels did not own chemical weapons or have the capacity to produce them.

Abu Omar, a Failaq al-Sham spokesman, accused Damascus of trying to create “a malicious charade” as a pretext to attack rebel towns.

The UK-based Observatory said government shelling earlier on Saturday had killed two women and seven children in a village in Idlib.

The Russian-Turkish deal in September for a demilitarized zone staved off an army offensive against the Idlib region, including nearby parts of Aleppo and Hama provinces.

The dominant force among an array of factions holding sway in Idlib is Tahrir al-Sham, an Islamist alliance led by fighters formerly linked to al-Qaeda.

A past U.N.-OPCW inquiry found the Syrian government used the nerve agent sarin in 2017 and also used chlorine several times. It also blamed Islamic State for using mustard gas.

Damascus has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons in the war.

No rebel group has been confirmed to have used chemical weapons in the war by the by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

(Reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut, Ahmed Tolba in Cairo, Kinda Makieh in Damascus, and Andrew Osborn in Moscow; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Taliban rejects pleas by Afghan elders for a ceasefire extension

FILE PHOTO: Taliban walk as they celebrate ceasefire in Ghanikhel district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan June 16, 2018.REUTERS/Parwiz/File Photo

By Hamid Shalizi

KABUL (Reuters) – The Taliban on Monday rejected pleas by Afghan elders and activists for an extension of this month’s ceasefire and said they amounted to a call for surrender to foreign forces.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid dismissed the peace “slogans” and urged civil society activists and others not to join movements he said played into the hands of U.S. and international forces the Taliban wants to force from the country.

“They are not speaking about the occupation or the withdrawal of foreigners. Their objective is that we lay down our weapons and accept the regime imposed by the invaders,” he said in a statement.

A truce over the three day Eid al-Fitr festival this month, during which unarmed Taliban fighters mingled with soldiers and civilians in the capital Kabul and other cities has given fresh impetus to the calls for peace, although many also dismiss the ceasefire as a Taliban trick.

A small group of peace marchers who came to Kabul on foot from the southern province of Helmand this month have also gained prominence, with pleas to all sides to end a conflict which has now lasted for 40 years.

“Tribal elders may not be able to bring about peace and create a ceasefire to the whole country but they can for their own districts and they will,” said Dawlat Wazir, an elder in Jani Khil district in the eastern province of Paktia.

In Jani Khil, elders held a meeting that drew hundreds of people at the weekend, calling on the government and Taliban forces to refrain from fighting in their area.

“We are so fed up with operations by government forces in our areas that trigger fighting for days,” said Malek Sakhto, one of the elders behind the meeting. “We’re pleading with the government and the Taliban to agree on a ceasefire and stop killing each other and civilians.”

The success of such local initiatives is mixed and may stand little chance as military operations pick up.

President Ashraf Ghani ordered government forces to stop offensive operations against the Taliban for another 10 days after the end of the ceasefire but there has since been fierce fighting in several areas.

In Logar, to the south of the capital Kabul, local elders and religious scholars have been trying to arrange a ceasefire in Azra district, according to Abdul Wali, a member of the Logar provincial council.

He said an informal accord had been reached but local people were still waiting for an official announcement from the Taliban shadow governor for Logar, Muallah Ismail Akhondzada.

In Kunar province, on the border with Pakistan, another group of walkers is making its way to Kabul, a statement from the governor’s office said.

(Additional reporting by Samiullah Paiwand, Qadir Sediqi; Editing by James Mackenzie and Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Philippine leader declares unilateral ceasefire for Christmas

FILE PHOTO: Philippine National Police chief General Ronald Dela Rosa whispers to President Rodrigo Duterte during the announcement of the disbandment of police operations against illegal drugs at the Malacanang palace in Manila, Philippines

MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has declared a 10-day unilateral ceasefire with communist rebels to allow Filipinos to celebrate a “stress-free” Christmas season, two weeks after peace talks with the insurgents were formally scrapped.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Duterte had ordered the army and police to suspend offensive operations from Dec. 24 to Jan. 2 “to lessen the apprehension of the public this Christmas season”.

He said he expected the Maoists and their political leaders to “do a similar gesture of goodwill.”

There was no immediate comment from the communist rebel movement, whose top leaders and negotiators have been living in exile in The Netherlands since the late 1980s.

Duterte restarted a stalled peace process and freed several communist leaders as a gesture of good faith when he came to office last year but he recently abandoned talks due to escalating rebel attacks.

He has vented his fury on a near-daily basis at what he considers duplicity by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA). He has collectively declared them a “terrorist organization” and has ended the three-decades peace process.

The rebel forces, estimated to number around 3,000, have been waging a protracted guerrilla warfare in the countryside for nearly 50 years in a conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people and stifled growth in resource-rich areas of the Philippines.

The guerrillas have been targeting mines, plantations, construction and telecommunication companies, demanding “revolutionary taxation” to finance arms purchases and recruitment activities.

Duterte on Tuesday night said he only wanted Filipinos to celebrate a “stress-free” Christmas.

“I do not want to add more strain to what people are now suffering,” he told reporters.

(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Martin Petty and Michael Perry)

Turkey and Russia have ceasefire plan for Syria, says Ankara

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan arrive for a joint news conference following their meeting in Istanbul, Turkey,

By Orhan Coskun and Ellen Francis

ANKARA/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Turkey and Russia have prepared an agreement for a ceasefire in Syria, Turkey’s foreign minister said on Wednesday, adding Ankara would not budge on its opposition to President Bashar al-Assad staying on as leader.

The comments from Mevlut Cavusoglu appeared to signal tentative progress in talks aimed at reaching a truce. While the insistence on Assad’s departure could complicate negotiations with his biggest backer Russia, another Turkish official did not rule out a transitional role for the Syrian president.

Russia, Iran and Turkey said last week they were ready to help broker a peace deal after holding talks in Moscow where they adopted a declaration setting out the principles any agreement should adhere to. Russia has said the next talks are set for Astana, the Kazakh capital.

“There are two texts ready on a solution in Syria. One is about a political resolution and the other is about a ceasefire. They can be implemented any time,” Cavusoglu told reporters on the sidelines of an awards ceremony at the presidential palace in Ankara.

He said Syria’s opposition would never back Assad.

“The whole world knows it is not possible for there to be a political transition with Assad, and we also all know that it is impossible for these people to unite around Assad.”

Last week, Russia’s foreign minister said Russia, Iran and Turkey had agreed the priority in Syria was to fight terrorism and not to remove Assad’s government – comments that suggested a shift by Turkey, which has long pushed for Assad’s ouster.

Sources told Reuters that, under an outline deal between the three countries, Syria could be divided into informal zones of regional power and Assad would remain president for at least a few years.

A senior Turkish government official said on Wednesday that future discussions would likely hash out Assad’s role.

“We put importance on the establishment of a transitional government and that it would be one that meets the demands of the Syrian people,” the official said. “Whether or not Assad will take place in the government will be discussed in the coming period.”

Assad will not be attending the talks in Astana, which are likely to be held at the undersecretary level “at most”, the official added.

STICKING POINT

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency said earlier on Wednesday Moscow and Ankara had agreed on a proposal towards a general ceasefire. The Kremlin said it could not comment on the report.

A Syrian rebel official said meetings between Ankara and rebel forces were expected to continue this week, but he could not confirm whether a final ceasefire agreement had been reached.

The rebel official told Reuters a major sticking point was that Russia wanted to exclude the Damascus countryside from the ceasefire, which the rebels were refusing to do.

A second rebel official told Reuters there was no agreement yet from the side of the rebel factions. “The details of the ceasefire deal have yet to be officially presented to the factions,” he said.

Russia’s foreign minister said on Tuesday the Syrian government was consulting with the opposition ahead of possible peace talks, while a Saudi-backed opposition group said it knew nothing of the negotiations but supported a ceasefire.

Russian officials have said invitations to participants for the Astana talks have not been sent out and the time has yet to be decided.

The talks would not include the United States and would be distinct from separate, intermittent U.N.-brokered negotiations.

In Berlin, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said Germany supported any effort to solve the conflict by political means, adding the United Nations also had an import role to play.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura had spoken by phone with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and supported the efforts to establish a ceasefire and new peace talks.

The Syrian opposition’s main political body on Tuesday urged rebel groups to cooperate with “sincere regional efforts” to reach a ceasefire deal but that it had not been invited to any conference, referring to the Kazakhstan meeting.

The Turkish military said on Wednesday it had “neutralised” 44 Islamic State militants and wounded 117 as part of its operation in the northern Syrian town of al-Bab.

Rebels supported by Turkish troops have laid siege to al-Bab for weeks under an operation to sweep the Sunni hardliners and Kurdish fighters from its Syrian border.

(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara, Humeyra Pamuk in Istanbul, Denis Pinchuk in Moscow and Madeline Chambers in Berlin; writing by David Dolan; editing by Andrew Roche and John Stonestreet)

Battle of Aleppo ends after years of fighting as rebels agree to withdraw

People walk as they flee deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Syria

By Laila Bassam and Stephanie Nebehay

ALEPPO, Syria/GENEVA (Reuters) – Rebel resistance in Syria’s Aleppo ended on Tuesday after years of fighting and months of bitter siege and bombardment that culminated in a bloody collapse of their defenses this week, as insurgents agreed to withdraw in a ceasefire.

Rebel officials said fighting would end on Tuesday evening and insurgents and the civilians who have been trapped in the tiny pocket of territory they hold in Aleppo would leave the city for opposition-held areas of the countryside to the west.

News of the deal, confirmed by Russia’s U.N. envoy, came after the United Nations voiced deep concern about reports it had received of Syrian soldiers and allied Iraqi fighters summarily shooting dead 82 people in recaptured east Aleppo districts. It accused them of “slaughter”.

“My latest information is that they indeed have an arrangement achieved on the ground that the fighters are going to leave the city,” Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters. It could happen “within hours maybe”, he said.

A surrender or withdrawal of the rebels from Aleppo would mean the end of the rebellion in the city, Syria’s largest until the outbreak of war after mass protests in 2011.

By finally dousing the last embers of resistance burning in Aleppo, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military coalition of the army, Russian air power and Iran-backed militias will have delivered him his biggest battlefield victory of the war.

However, while the rebels, including groups backed by the United States, Turkey and Gulf monarchies, as well as jihadist groups that the West does not support, will suffer a crushing defeat in Aleppo, the war will be far from over.

“The crushing of Aleppo, the immeasurably terrifying toll on its people, the bloodshed, the wanton slaughter of men, women and children, the destruction – and we are nowhere near the end of this cruel conflict,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said in a statement.

Govermental Syrian forces fire into sky as celebrating their victory against rebels in eastern Aleppo, Syria

Govermental Syrian forces fire into sky as celebrating their victory against rebels in eastern Aleppo, Syria December 12,2016. REUTERS/ Omar Sanadiki

“MELTDOWN OF HUMANITY”

The rout of rebels from their ever-shrinking territory in Aleppo has sparked a mass flight of civilians and insurgents in bitter weather, a crisis the United Nations said was a “complete meltdown of humanity”.

“The reports we had are of people being shot in the street trying to flee and shot in their homes,” said U.N. spokesman Rupert Colville. “There could be many more.”

The Syrian army has denied carrying out killings or torture among those captured, and its main ally Russia said on Tuesday rebels had “kept over 100,000 people as human shields”.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon briefed the 15-member U.N. Security Council at 12 p.m. (1700 GMT) at the request of Britain and France. France said it had called for a meeting to focus on possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Behind those fleeing was a wasteland of flattened buildings, concrete rubble and bullet-pocked walls, where tens of thousands had lived until recent days under intense bombardment even after medical and rescue services had collapsed.

Colville said the rebel-held area was “a hellish corner” of less than a square kilometer, adding its capture was imminent.

The Syrian army and its allies could declare victory at any moment, a Syrian military source had said, predicting the final fall of the rebel enclave on Tuesday or Wednesday, after insurgent defenses collapsed on Monday.

(Reporting By Laila Bassam in Aleppo, Orhan Coskun in Ankara, Lisa Barrington and Tom Perry in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut; Editing by Pravin Char and Peter Millership)

Russia says to extend moratorium on Aleppo air strikes

Smoke rises after strikes on Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) controlled Tell Rifaat town, northern Aleppo province, Syria

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Russian Defence Ministry said on Tuesday it would extend a moratorium on air strikes on the Syrian city of Aleppo, but did not specify for how long.

Russia said earlier on Tuesday that Russian and Syrian military planes had not launched air strikes on Aleppo since Oct. 18, contradicting reports that air strikes in some areas of the city had resumed on Saturday.

Russia’s Interfax news agency reported earlier that a “humanitarian pause” in Aleppo would be extended by three hours, but a defense ministry statement later clarified that extension related to a ceasefire on Oct. 20 and not to air strikes.

“The moratorium on air strikes by the Russian and Syrian air forces around (Aleppo) will be extended,” the ministry said in the statement, saying it meant Russian and Syrian planes would continue to stay out of a 10 kilometer zone around Aleppo.

It said it was also ready to organize more ceasefires on the ground in Aleppo to allow wounded civilians to be evacuated.

“We are ready to establish (further) humanitarian pauses … but only if we have reliable information about the readiness to evacuate the sick, injured and civilian population,” the defense ministry said.

(Reporting by Polina Devitt/Denis Pinchuk; Writing by Jack Stubbs; Editing by Andrew Osborn)