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Moscow (AFP) - Moscow announced Tuesday that Russian and Syrian air forces have stopped bombing Aleppo ahead of a brief truce, a move the Kremlin said showed "goodwill" as it faces mounting criticism for backing a brutal regime offensive.
It came a day after Russia said there would be an eight-hour "humanitarian pause" in the battered city on Thursday, a move welcomed by the United Nations and the European Union which nevertheless said the ceasefire needed to be longer to allow the delivery of aid.
The US State Department voiced scepticism regarding Moscow's latest initiative while welcoming a halt in the bombing.
French and Russian presidents Francois Hollande and Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will hold a "working meeting" on the Syrian crisis Wednesday in Berlin, the French leader's office said.
The meeting will be aimed at "giving the same message to Vladimir Putin on Syria: a durable ceasefire in Aleppo and humanitarian access so that the devastation of this city can end," an aide to Hollande said.
The West has expressed increasing alarm at the situation in Aleppo, saying the ferocious Russian-backed onslaught on the rebel-held east could amount to a war crime.
"Strikes in the Aleppo region by the Russian and Syrian air forces are stopping today from 10:00 am," Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a televised briefing.
"This guarantees the security of civilians' exit through six corridors and prepares the evacuation of the sick and injured from eastern Aleppo," he said, adding that it would also guarantee safe passage for rebels to leave the area.
The UN said it was waiting for safety assurances from all sides before going in with "critical humanitarian assistance" for Aleppo's desperate population.
- 'Goodwill' -
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov hailed the halt as a "manifestation of goodwill by the Russian military" and denied it was meant to assuage Western critics who have accused Moscow of perpetrating potential war crimes in Syria's second city.
US State Department spokesman John Kirby remained cautious about Moscow's initiative.
"It's a little too soon to tell how genuine this is and how long it's going to last," Kirby told CNN.
"We've seen these kinds of commitments and promises before. And we've seen them broken. We're watching this very carefully."
An AFP photographer in eastern Aleppo said air strikes in the rebel-held area had stopped following the Russian announcement.
People in the city's eastern neighbourhoods were out searching for food on Tuesday, the photographer saw.
After more than five years of bloodshed, Abdel Rahman al-Mawwas of the civil defence White Helmets rescuers told AFP he did not trust the truce plan.
"We tried a ceasefire three times this year... No result," he said.
Air strikes were still being conducted in the broader Aleppo region, the Britain-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Over 250,000 people are under government siege in the city that was once Syria's thriving commercial hub.
In the government-held west of Aleppo city, rebel artillery fire killed four people on Tuesday and injured 20 more, the Observatory said.
On Monday, dozens of civilians including 12 members of the same family were killed in strikes in Aleppo, it added.
- Hospitals, schools targeted -
The brutal government offensive against eastern Aleppo -- which has destroyed hospitals and other civilian infrastructure -- has plunged Syria into some of the worst violence of the five-year war that has claimed over 300,000 lives.
The UN Human Rights Council said it would hold a special session on the Aleppo crisis on Friday, at the request of 16 nations including the US and Britain.
The European Union said on Monday that the Russian and Syrian "deliberate targeting of hospitals, medical personnel, schools and essential infrastructure" could amount to war crimes.
EU foreign ministers also warned that the bloc could impose additional sanctions against Damascus, but decided against targeting Russia despite US and British calls to punish Moscow as well.
Shoigu said Tuesday that the halt in bombing could "contribute to the success" of talks in Geneva on Wednesday on efforts to distance Syrian opposition fighters from jihadist group Fateh al-Sham Front, which changed its name from Al-Nusra Front after renouncing its ties to Al-Qaeda.
"The work will commence tomorrow," Moscow's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin confirmed, adding that Russian, US, Saudi, Qatari and Turkish military officials would be taking part.
"They are supposed to get down to the business tomorrow of trying specifically to separate on the map the so-called moderate groups and al Nusra,” he added.
Russia has repeatedly demanded that Syrian rebels break all ties with the Fateh al-Sham Front, which the United Nations considers a terrorist group, as a condition for a ceasefire in Aleppo.
A short-lived truce brokered by Moscow and Washington last month could have led the two countries to coordinate strikes against jihadists, but the deal quickly unravelled.