Hollande, Merkel, Putin meet ahead of fresh Aleppo truce


French, Russian and German leaders will meet in Berlin for talks on Syria Wednesday ahead of a brief truce in Aleppo backed by Moscow in the face of mounting criticism for its part in a brutal regime offensive.

The meeting comes a day after the Kremlin announced that Russian and Syrian air forces had stopped bombing Aleppo prior to an eight-hour “humanitarian pause” in the battered city Thursday, a move Moscow said showed “goodwill”.

It was an announcement 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.

EU foreign ministers said earlier this week they would press ahead with extending sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but stopped short of threatening measures against Russia.

But Merkel said that in light of the “disastrous situation” in Syria, “no option, including sanctions, can be taken off the table”.

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.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced in a televised briefing Tuesday that strikes in the Aleppo region were stopping.

“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.

He added 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.