News / World

Turkey and Russia search for Syria cease-fire formula

This photo provided by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Civil Defense workers carrying a victim on a stretcher after artillery fire struck the Jub al-Quba district in Aleppo, Syria, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. Syrian activists say at least 21 people have been killed in an artillery barrage on a housing area for those displaced in rebel-held eastern Aleppo. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

This photo provided by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Civil Defense workers carrying a victim on a stretcher after artillery fire struck the Jub al-Quba district in Aleppo, Syria, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. Syrian activists say at least 21 people have been killed in an artillery barrage on a housing area for those displaced in rebel-held eastern Aleppo. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish and Russian officials on Thursday held talks on the deteriorating conditions in eastern Aleppo but gave no indication they were close to a cease-fire as Syrian government forces pushed on with their assault on the beleaguered, rebel-held enclave.

Turkey and Russia, who are backing opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, only said they agreed on the need for a cease-fire. Syrian opposition fighters, meanwhile, acknowledged the most they could hope for was humanitarian assistance to the besieged enclave, home to an estimated 275,000 people.

U.N. Humanitarian aid chief, Jan Egeland, said Thursday at least 27,000 people have fled from eastern to western Aleppo or nearby Kurdish-held areas since Saturday, when Syrian forces advanced into rebel areas and airstrikes continued.

"We are in agreement that a cease-fire is needed so that the tragedy can come to an end," said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlet Cavusoglu, speaking alongside his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in a Turkish resort town.

Cavusoglu said a cease-fire was needed in all of Syria but especially in Aleppo, where multiple temporary truces have fallen apart, in order for humanitarian aid to be delivered.

There was no sign such a cease-fire was near.

Lavrov said his country will continue its support for the Syrian government until Aleppo is "cleared of terrorists."

Ankara and Moscow have long been at odds over the conflict in Syria, where Russia backs President Bashar Assad and Turkey supports rebel factions fighting to topple the Syrian leader.

The conflict has played out tragically in the divided city of Aleppo, where dozens of people have been killed and tens of thousands, mostly women and children, have been displaced from their homes in rebel-held areas since Saturday.

"What we are hoping for is a salvation plan to save the remaining residents of Aleppo," said Yasser al-Yousef, a spokesman for the opposition group Nour el-Din el-Zinki. "There is no political solution."

Al-Yousef said representatives of various rebel factions were in consultation with Turkish officials, who are in turn talking with the Russians. He denied direct communications with Russia. He said there was no U.S. role in the consultations, which also involved the U.N.

Residents said the government's bombardment of eastern Aleppo had eased Thursday as poor weather obstructed visibility over the city.

But pro-government forces nevertheless advanced under the cover of tank and heavy weapons fire into the Youth Housing district at the edge of the rebel-held enclave, according to state and military media.

Many residents have chosen to stay in eastern Aleppo rather than flee to government areas out of fear of arrest by the government's security services.

Al-Yousef said medical supplies have been exhausted in the enclave. "Currently, surgeries are carried on limbs without any anesthesia" because they are saving them for injuries near the heart and abdomen, he said.

While Russia and Turkey agree on the need to fight Islamic State militants, they disagree on which elements of the Syrian opposition constitute terrorists.

Moscow and Damascus use the term loosely to describe most armed opposition fighters. Turkey sent troops into Syria this summer to back armed groups in northern Aleppo against Islamic State militants and Kurdish rebels.

Cavusoglu said the failure to find a political solution in Syria will breed more extremists.

Moscow has been a staunch defender of the Syrian government and says its military involvement in the country is designed to stamp out IS and other extremists.

Turkey, which has always backed the opposition that aims to oust Assad, caused a strain in its new rapprochement with Moscow when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently suggested his country's military actions in Syria aims to topple the Syrian government.

Speaking in Ankara Thursday, Erdogan appeared to try to dispel concerns over a change of the mission of its military incursion in Syria.

"The aim of the Euphrates Shield Operation is not any country nor any person, it is terror organizations," Erodgan said. "No one should pull the issue into different directions."

___

Soguel contributed reporting from Istanbul. Sarah El Deeb and Philip Issa contributed to the report from Beirut.