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Jul 29, 1:38 PM EDT

UN Syria envoy tells Russia: Leave Aleppo corridors 'to us'



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GENEVA (AP) -- The U.N. special envoy for Syria on Friday urged Russia to leave the creation of humanitarian corridors around Aleppo to the United Nations and its partners, issuing a gentle snub to Moscow, which had made the proposal a day earlier as pro-government troops tightened their encirclement of rebel-held parts of the northern Syrian city.

Rights groups and civilians trapped in opposition-held neighborhoods in eastern Aleppo reacted critically to Russia's plan, saying it does not guarantee safe passage or give residents a choice of where they flee to. Some residents fear the proposed corridors are intended to restore government control over parts of the city that have been in rebel hands since 2012.

U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura said he was not consulted on the proposal, which was first announced Thursday by the Russian defense ministry.

"That's our job," de Mistura said of the corridors plan at a press conference in Geneva. He expressed support "in principle" for humanitarian corridors but said it must be "under the right circumstances."

"How do you expect people to walk through a corridor - thousands of them - while there is shelling, bombing, fighting?" de Mistura said.

He said he is awaiting clarification from Russian authorities about the plan, noting the urgent situation in the city, wracked by devastating violence in recent months.

"The clock is ticking for the Aleppo population," he said. The U.N. says Aleppo is now possibly the largest besieged area in Syria, with an estimated 300,000 residents trapped inside.

No one should be forced to leave Aleppo, he said, but if they do, "it is crucial that they be given the option of leaving to areas of their own choice."

Robert Mardini, Middle East director for the International Committee for the Red Cross said he had no indication that all sides were in agreement over the plan. He said those who choose to stay behind must be protected and that all parties must allow humanitarian agencies to reach them.

"Any initiative that can successfully give civilians some respite from the ongoing and indiscriminate violence, and allows them to voluntarily leave for safer areas, would be much welcomed," said Mardini. "But humanitarian corridors need to be well and carefully planned, and have to be implemented with the consent of parties on all sides."

With airstrikes against critical infrastructure and densely populated areas of Aleppo continuing, the Institute for the Study of War said, the Russian proposal seems more like an effort to "depopulate Aleppo City in preparation for concerted pro-regime ground operations to force the surrender of opposition groups within the city." The Institute, which monitors developments in Syria, made the comments in a brief Friday.

The Russian proposal coincided with an offer of amnesty from Syrian President Bashar Assad to fighters in the area.

Late night airstrikes in the city killed at least six people, the activist-run Aleppo Media Center said Friday.

Osama Abo Elezz, a general surgeon from Aleppo who was stranded in Turkey because of the siege, said the idea of allowing people to evacuate the city "offers a service to the regime and the Russians, and forces people to go to areas they don't want to go to."

He said that if the U.N. allows residents to travel safely to other opposition held-areas, this could reassure people that it is safe to leave and would reduce the number of people killed in the siege or from airstrikes.

There were no reports of civilians using the corridors on Friday. Rebel fighters were forbidding people from using the Bustan al-Qasr crossing, in the north of the city, "out of fear for their safety," according to Khaled Khatib, a volunteer for the Civil Defense search-and-rescue brigade. He said civilians who leave the city risk being shot by government snipers or being detained because of their opposition sympathies.

Also on Friday, in the neighboring northern province of Idlib, the charity Save the Children said a maternity hospital it supports in the opposition-held area had been bombed, with casualties reported.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said airstrikes in Kafr Takhareem village in rural Idlib hit a hospital and a center for civil defense volunteers. The group said the hospital was damaged and there were initial reports of casualties. It said the hospital was no longer operational.

Save the Children said the maternity hospital is the only such facility in the region, with the next facility about 70 kilometers away.

Rights groups have said that government and Russian warplanes have repeatedly targeted medical facilities, a charge both deny.

In other violence, activists said a U.S.-led coalition airstrike targeting a village in northern Syria held by the Islamic State group killed 28 civilians, including seven children.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said coalition airstrikes hit the IS-held village of Al-Ghandour near the Turkish border late Thursday. Observatory chief Rami Adurrahman said another 13 people were killed in the strikes, but that he could not say if they were IS fighters or civilians.

The international coalition had no immediate comment on the casualty figures. The bombings came a week after airstrikes, also blamed by Syrian activists on U.S. aircraft, killed at least 56 civilians in IS-held territory in northern Syria.

Al-Ghandour is 24 kilometers (15 miles) northwest of the town of Manbij, a key hub in the extremist group's Syria network and a supply route to IS's de facto capital of Raqqa.

The Manbij area has seen extensive battles between IS extremists and U.S.-backed Kurdish-led fighters, who have been advancing under the cover of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition. The town is encircled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

Activists said that IS militants recaptured the nearby village of al-Bouweir on Thursday and killed 24 civilians.

Hamoud Almousa, a founding member of activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, said IS sought retribution from the village for "not defending Islam" when the SDF initially drove out IS earlier this summer.

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El Deeb reported from Beirut. Associated Press Writer Philip Issa contributed from Beirut.

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