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European Union calls for 'immediate halt' to fighting in Aleppo

Bloc calls for halt to allow medical evacuations and deliveries of aid as Russia says it will support UN envoy's call for weekly two-day cease-fires
Wounded toddler is held after being pulled from under rubble after air strike on rebel-held Aleppo on 15 August (Reuters)

The European Union on Thursday urged an "immediate halt" to fighting in the Syrian city of Aleppo to allow medical and humanitarian aid to reach an estimated 1.5 million trapped civilians.

"The EU and its member States call for... an immediate halt to the fighting in Aleppo to allow medical evacuations, deliveries of aid and repairing of essential water and electricity infrastructure," EU foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini said in a statement.

Meanwhile Russia, which is bombing rebel-held areas of the city as an ally of the Syrian government, said it is willing to support a proposal by UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura for weekly 48-hour "humanitarian pauses" in Aleppo, the Russian defence ministry said on Twitter on Thursday.

Russia is ready to introduce the first "humanitarian pause" next week, the ministry said.

Mistura earlier said that no aid convoys had reached besieged areas of Syria for the past month and that he had suspended a humanitarian task force until next week as a signal to major powers.

Some independent aid workers have been able to reach Aleppo city with medical and food supplies, risking near constant air strikes by Russian and Syrian jets.

Syrian and Russian jets continued to carry out intense air strikes on opposition strongholds in northern Syria on Thursday to prevent rebels from sending reinforcements to Aleppo, a monitor said on Thursday.

Air strikes on Idlib city, 60 kilometres southwest of Aleppo, killed 25 people including 15 civilians on Wednesday, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.


Air strikes pound rebel positions

Government aircraft continued to pound rebel positions across Idlib province on Thursday as well as parts of Aleppo province, it said.

"Regime and Russian aircraft are carrying out dozens of raids every day on Idlib province and the west of Aleppo province to prevent reinforcements reaching rebel positions," said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

Despite its air power, pro-government forces have been unable to gain headway in street-to-street battles, said Abdel Rahman.

"The rebels have put all their forces into this battle and regime forces have been exhausted," said Abdel Rahman.

De Mistura said the proposal for a 48-hour pause in fighting in Aleppo would be the main topic of a meeting on Thursday of a group of countries working for a cessation of hostilities.

"I insist, on behalf of the (UN) Secretary General: to have a 48-hour pause in Aleppo, to start with, would require some heavy lifting not only by the two co-chairs [Russia and the United States] but also those who have influence on the ground," de Mistura told reporters in Geneva.

Since the beginning of the year, the UN and its Red Cross partners have delivered aid to nearly 1.3 million Syrians living in areas defined as besieged or hard-to-reach.

But the movement of convoys has primarily been hampered by access restrictions imposed by Assad's government.

Deir Ezzor, which is partially controlled by the Islamic State group, has continued to receive aid over the last month through World Food Programme air drops, de Mistura said.

Four besieged areas - Madaya, Zabadani, Foah and Kafraya - have not been reached by a convoy in 110 days, the UN envoy added.

More than 290,000 people have been killed and more than half the population has been displaced since Syria's conflict erupted in March 2011 with anti-government protests that escalated into a brutal multi-front war.

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