Russia and the Syrian government have said they will open humanitarian corridors in Syria’s embattled city of Aleppo and offer a way out for opposition fighters wanting to lay down their arms.
The Russian announcement by defence minister Sergei Shoigu came as Syria’s president Bashar al Assad offered a general amnesty for rebels who give up their weapons and surrender to authorities over the next three months.
Rebels and residents of Aleppo said they were deeply sceptical of the offer, and there was no immediate sign of people massing to leave the besieged parts of the city.
Rights groups said opening safe passages to civilians trapped in eastern Aleppo city will not avert a catastrophe and does not give Syrian and Russian forces carte blanche to further blockade the opposition-controlled territory.
Amnesty International said providing safe routes for those civilians wishing to leave is “no substitute for allowing impartial humanitarian relief for civilians who remain in opposition-held areas”, many of whom will be sceptical about government and Russian promises.
“Providing safe routes for those civilians who wish to flee Aleppo city will not avert a humanitarian catastrophe,” said Philip Luther, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme for Amnesty. “The fact that you provide this option doesn’t mean that the people who stay behind are legitimate military targets,” said Nadim Houry, the deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
For days now, Syrian government forces and allied troops have encircled the main rebel enclave in Aleppo, urging fighters there to surrender.
The encirclement set the stage for a prolonged siege that the government hopes will eventually force the rebels to surrender, a tactic Assad’s forces have used elsewhere, including in the central city of Homs.
But humanitarian groups have warned of a major catastrophe if the siege on the rebel-held parts of Aleppo continues.
Some 300,000 residents are trapped in the eastern part of the city that is controlled by rebels, according to the United Nations.
Mr Shoigu said in televised comments that President Vladimir Putin has ordered a “large-scale humanitarian operation” that will be launched outside Aleppo to help civilians as well as allow fighters who wanted to lay down the arms to surrender.
He said three corridors will be open for civilians and fighters who lay down their arms and a fourth corridor providing fighters a “safe exit with weapons.”