BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest on Syria (all times local):
Syrian President Bashar Assad says in a Swiss television interview that a photo of a 5-year-old boy covered in dust and blood inside an ambulance that drew worldwide attention was “forged.”
Assad also told state broadcaster SRF that a planned pause in fighting Thursday in the northern city of Aleppo was an important step “but not enough.” He said civilians want to leave the city but “terrorists” won’t let them.
In the wide-ranging interview in English aired Wednesday and conducted Tuesday, Assad rejected claims that he’s a war criminal, brushed off criticism from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and portrayed the “White Helmets” rescue teams as a “face-lift” of al-Qaida-linked militants in Aleppo.
Assad rejected the iconic image in August of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh following an airstrike as “manipulated” and said he would send the journalist conducting the interview photos to prove his claim.
French President Francois Hollande has called the situation in Aleppo “unacceptable, intolerable, unbearable” ahead of a meeting in Berlin that was primarily aimed at tackling problems in Ukraine.
The French president made the comments Wednesday in Paris following a meeting with Rahed Al-Saleh, the head of the White Helmets volunteer civil defense force that digs the dead and injured out from collapsed buildings, and a Syrian delegation from Aleppo.
Hollande said the Berlin meeting later in the day with Germany, Russia and Ukraine would extend to discussions of the humanitarian situation in Syria.
Hollande said that “what is at stake, in the end, it’s the honor or the shame of the international community.”
The Russian military says Russian and Syrian warplanes are staying away from Aleppo, a day before a temporary pause in the military push declared by Moscow.
Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi said the “humanitarian pause” in Aleppo will last from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday, three hours longer than had been announced originally.
Rudskoi said Wednesday the break in hostilities should allow both civilians and militants safe exit out of the city. He said two of eight humanitarian corridors out of Aleppo are reserved for militants — one offering an exit toward Turkey and another leading to the neighboring rebel-held province of Idlib.
Russian and Syrian warplanes halted airstrikes on Aleppo starting Tuesday, and Rudskoi said they have kept at least 10 kilometers (6 miles) away from the city.
A Syrian negotiator says 38 buses carrying nearly 2,000 people, including 700 gunmen, have been evacuated from a government-besieged suburb of Damascus following a deal to empty it of rebels.
Hassan Ghandour, a resident of Moadamiyeh and a leading negotiator, said Wednesday the buses were heading from Moadamiyeh to the northern rebel-held province of Idlib. Some of the evacuees were also wounded.
The evacuation began in September, following a deal struck with the government.
Ghandour said that after Wednesday’s evacuation, the suburb would be free of all gunmen and state control would be imposed.
The government had also struck a deal with the neighboring suburb of Daraya, which surrendered after a four-year siege and a punishing bombing campaign.
Turkey’s president says his Russian counterpart has asked for Turkey’s assistance toward the removal of fighters from the extremist Fatah al-Sham Front, previously known as Nusra Front, from the embattled northern Syrian city of Aleppo.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday he discussed Aleppo with Russian President Vladimir Putin Tuesday evening, before Russia announced a temporary halt to airstrikes.
“We gave the necessary orders to our friends,” Erdogan said, adding that the leaders discussed an agreement to work together on “removing Nusra from Aleppo and ensuring calm for Aleppo residents on this front.”
Erdogan also warned about the possibility of an influx of at least one million people to Turkey in the event of a population movement from Aleppo.
“We cannot pay this cost. Those who incite this must sit down with Turkey and talk,” he said.
Russia’s military says a U.S.-led coalition airstrike on a Syrian village in the province of Aleppo has killed six civilians.
The military’s Reconciliation Center in Syria says Tuesday’s strike on the village of Hassajek also wounded four people and destroyed two houses.
The center says Russian military surveillance means spotted two Belgian F-16 fighter jets over the area at the time of the strike. It noted that Russian and Syrian warplanes weren’t flying over the area Tuesday.
Russia’s Tass news agency reported from Brussels that the Belgian defense minister denied Belgian aircraft had struck the area.
Russia announced that Russian and Syrian warplanes halted their airstrikes on the besieged city of Aleppo, in preparation for a temporary pause in the military push that Moscow has announced for Thursday.