UN hopes Aleppo medical evacuations will begin Friday

Ben Simon
Syrians walk over rubble following air strikes on the rebel-held Fardous neighbourhood of Aleppo (AFP Photo/Ameer Alhalbi)

Syrians walk over rubble following air strikes on the rebel-held Fardous neighbourhood of Aleppo

Syrians walk over rubble following air strikes on the rebel-held Fardous neighbourhood of Aleppo (AFP Photo/Ameer Alhalbi)

Geneva (AFP) - Medical evacuations from Aleppo could begin Friday, the UN said, confirming that a humanitarian truce in the devastated Syrian city had been extended.

The pause in fighting in the besieged rebel-held east of the city began at 8:00 am (0500 GMT) on Thursday, but the United Nations said it was not able to dispatch aid convoys or begin evacuations on day one of the truce because warring parties had not provided security guarantees.

Speaking in Geneva, the head of the UN's humanitarian taskforce for Syria, Jan Egeland, said he hoped those in most urgent need of care could be taken out on Friday by the World Health Organization and Red Cross.

"We believe we now have all of the green lights that we need both from the Russians and the government and from the armed opposition groups," Egeland told reporters.

He cautioned, however, that "this is Syria, so everything can go wrong at every possible opportunity."

The tentative evacuation plan was announced after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces and their key backer Russia agreed to extend the truce through Saturday. They intially promises just a one day pause.

Syria, which announced the extension on state media Wednesday, has offered an eight-hour daily truce.

Russia has promised to halt its bombardment for 11 hours each day, said Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN's humanitarian office (OCHA) in Geneva.

Egeland said Russia was weighing a UN request to push the truce through to the end of Sunday.

Those evacuated from eastern Aleppo will have the choice of being taken to the city's government-controlled west, or to Idlib, which is in opposition hands, Egeland told reporters.

If the truce holds, hundreds of people could be evacuated from eastern Aleppo with their families, the UN official added.

Egeland also said that aid trucks stuck near the Turkish border for weeks could also reach eastern Aleppo, delivering medical and food supplies to civilians in grave need of relief.

Eastern Aleppo has effectively been cut off from humanitarian aid since July 7 when regime forces seized the last supply route.

Since then, civilians have faced severe water, food and medicine shortages while enduring bombardments from regime and Russian forces that have affected nearly every medical facility in the city's east, according to the UN.

- Broader Aleppo plan -

The UN's Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, stressed that the temporary pause initiated by Russia was welcome but still inadequate and restated his plan to ease the crisis in eastern Aleppo.

That includes a total halt in Russian and Syrian bombing and the withdrawal of fighters from the former Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Fateh al-Sham Front -- formerly known as Al-Nusra.

Russia and Syria have used the jihadists' presence in eastern Aleppo as justification for their continued assault.