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Assad pushes Aleppo onslaught as UN warns of exposure

Syria's regime is continuing to shell rebel-held districts in Aleppo. The United Nations warns that tens of thousands of displaced people are in need of shelter as temperatures drop at night during the winter weather.

Government forces continue to shell eastern Aleppo despite Russia's claim that the regime's army would suspend combat operations to allow for the evacuation of civilians from besieged districts. At least 40,000 displaced people have moved to government-held western Aleppo in recent weeks, according to estimates by the United Nations, though other agencies have given figures twice as high. They join more than 400,000 displaced people already in western Aleppo.

"Our biggest concern is how to shelter all these people," said Linda Tom, of the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Damascus.

Concern has grown that the government could attempt to forcibly conscript the young men it has disproportionately detained as they attempt to flee the regime's siege. Some men have opted to stay in the eastern enclave, which rebels had held since 2012, despite the risks and lack of food, water and medical care.

More than 300,000 people have been killed and half the population displaced since 2011, when government forces launched a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters.

'Not peace'

Early Friday, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura called for a return to negotiations after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said forces aligned with Syria's dictator, Bashar al-Assad, had halted their onslaught on rebel-held eastern Aleppo. "There is an awareness that military victory is not peace, because peace has to be won separately," de Mistura said Thursday. "Otherwise, we will leave with the impression, which no one wants to have, that there is only a military victory or military solution," the UN official added.

On Thursday, Lavrov said about 8,000 civilians would leave the besieged part of the city through a designated withdrawal route. "Combat operations by the Syrian army in east Aleppo have been suspended because the largest operation of evacuation of civilians from east Aleppo is being carried out," Lavrov said on Thursday, as quoted by Russian news agency Sputnik. Officials have maintained for weeks that Russia has not been involved in military operations in Aleppo, formerly Syria's most populous city.

US officials remained skeptical that Russia would follow through on its promise to help stop the military operations. "Our approach from the beginning has been to listen carefully to what the Russians say but scrutinize their actions," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at a news briefing late Thursday. "So, obviously, that statement is an indication that something positive could happen - but we're going to have to wait and see whether those statements are reflected on the ground."

mkg/kms (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)

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