German Foreign Minister Steinmeier has criticized the latest, 10-hour-long Russian ceasefire in Syria as being too short. His comments came after conflicting accounts emerged of a Russian helicopter downed near Palmyra.
A Russian helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing about 25 miles (40 km) northwest of the Syrian city of Palmyra on Thursday, but the opposing sides are offering conflicting explanations of what happened.
The Russian military said that the helicopter was delivering humanitarian aid and came under fire as it was landing in the village of Huwaysis, more than 120 miles from its home base on Syria's northeast coast.
But a news agency affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) claimed a Russian helicopter in Huwaysis had been destroyed by rocket fire. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a non-governmental group that has been monitoring Syria's five-year-old civil war, appeared to corroborate the Russian view of the incident. Still, Russia did not make clear just what had happened, though it acknowledged the downed helicopter had to be abandoned.
The Interfax news agency quoted a Russian defense ministry official in Syria as saying: "The helicopter sustained damage which prevented it from returning to the home air base. The crew was not hurt and was swiftly returned to Hmeimin air base by a search-and-rescue helicopter."
Russia has lost four helicopters in Syria, where it is aiding the government of Bashar al-Assad.
Russia to hold fire
Separately, Russia has also announced that Syrian forces will pull back to allow rebels to leave Aleppo during Moscow's brief unilateral ceasefire.
Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi of the Russian military's General Staff says a corridor leading toward the border with Turkey and another one in the direction of the rebel-controlled city of Idlib will be kept open for fighters during the "humanitarian pause" from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Friday.
The Russian military has distributed half a million leaflets in the eastern part of rebel-held Aleppo, describing the two exit routes for fighters and six corridors for civilians.
Rudskoi said rebel groups had fired at civilians willing to leave Aleppo and placed mines in humanitarian corridors.
Steinmeier warns of vacuum after US elections
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier criticized the shortness of the ceasefire after a meeting in Berlin Thursday with Riad Hijab, the head of the Syrian opposition's High Negotiations Committee.
Steinmeier also underlined the importance of ensuring that the upcoming power change in Washington doesn't result in a vacuum, adding that "we now urgently need a new impetus for talks between Moscow and Washington, but also the regional actors."
Syrian TV claims the civilian death toll from recent rebel attacks on government-held western Aleppo has risen to 12, and that more than 200 have been wounded.
bik/kl (AP, Reuters)