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Syrian opposition-in-exile slams UN envoy's call for Aleppo evacuation

Syrian interim government accuses De Mistura of supporting 'sectarian demographic change' with calls for former Al-Qaeda group to leave city
Syrians walk amidst the rubble of destroyed buildings on October 3, 2016, following reported air strikes in the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of the capital Damascus (AFP)

The Syrian opposition on Friday condemned calls by the UN special envoy to Syria for the evacuation of militants from east Aleppo as advocating "sectarian demographic change," and announced they would be cutting off all communication with him as a result.

On Thursday Staffan De Mistura called on fighters from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), formerly known as Al-Nusra Front and allied to Al-Qaeda, to leave Aleppo, promising he would "personally accompany them out of the city" if necessary. He warned that the militants held the lives of 275,000 Aleppo civilians in their hands and were risking further strikes from Russian and government fighters, who have both promised to continue striking "terrorists" in east Aleppo.

In response, the Istanbul-based Syrian Interim Government - formed by the opposition Syrian National Coalition - said it would be stopping all contact with the envoy:

"We received with shock remarks from the envoy Staffan de Mistura on the situation in the city of Aleppo and his proposals that contradict humanitarian principles of the professional norms of the organisation that he represents," read the statement.

"Instead of condemning the aggression carried out with all kinds of weapons, some of which are internationally banned against civilians, and then calling on it to stop it immediately by regarding it as organised terrorism, he sided with the gangs in Damascus and the Russian occupier, he gave them an excuse to continue the attack in exchange for humanitarian aid and evacuated the wounded and sick civilians by emptying the city from its own people.

"De Mistura therefore made the United Nations, which he personally represents, a partner in bringing about a sectarian demographic change in Syria."

The group said they would be "stopping all forms of contact and communication with him and his team with immediate effect" as a result of his comments.

Syrian forces advanced against rebels in Aleppo on Thursday, reportedly making their biggest gains in years, as the UN envoy to Syria warned that eastern areas of the city faced total destruction within months.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said loyalist fighters now controlled about half of the Bustan al-Basha district near the centre of the city.

"It's the most important advance for the regime in Aleppo since 2013," said observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

The government launched operations two weeks ago to recapture the rebel-held east of the city following the collapse of a short-lived truce negotiated by Russia and the United States.

The assault has seen rebel-held areas pounded relentlessly with air strikes, barrel bombs and artillery fire that have killed more than 270 people, according to the observatory.

On Wednesday, the army said in a surprise announcement it would reduce its bombardment "after the success of our armed forces in Aleppo and cutting off all terrorist supply routes into the eastern districts.

"The military command has decided to reduce the number of air and artillery strikes on terrorist positions to allow civilians who want to leave to reach safe areas," a statement said.

"Anyone who does not take advantage of the opportunity to lay down their arms or leave will meet their inevitable fate," it added.

The monitor said there had been fewer air strikes on Thursday, but that heavy clashes were under way in Bustan al-Basha, with the army now controlling several key vantage points and half of the district.

Activists in eastern Aleppo told Middle East Eye that government helicopters had begun dropping leaflets warning rebels of their imminent deaths.

“This is the fate of every terrorist carrying weapons and pointing it at the people and the army. We are coming. The general command and armed forces."