Fierce fighting rages in Aleppo as diplomats scramble to save truce
ALEPPO (Syria) - Fierce fighting raged in the war-ravaged Syrian city of Aleppo and air strikes pounded rebels east of the capital Damascus on Wednesday as top diplomats scrambled to salvage a collapsing truce.
Intense international efforts to bring a halt to the latest surge in Syrian fighting continued, with talks expected in Berlin and the UN Security Council set for an urgent meeting later Wednesday.
The renewed violence has threatened the complete breakdown of a landmark ceasefire between President Bashar al-Assad's regime and non-jihadist rebels brokered by Moscow and Washington in late February.
Fighting has been especially intense in and around Syria's devastated second city of Aleppo, with more than 280 civilians killed since April 22.
Some of the heaviest clashes in Aleppo in months continued on Wednesday as rebel forces pressed an offensive against regime troops on the city's western outskirts, a monitor said.
Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the fighting was "the most violent in Aleppo in over a year."
The rebels have fired a barrage of rockets into regime-held neighbourhoods in western Aleppo in recent days, with three more civilians killed in the attacks early on Wednesday, Syrian state news agency SANA said.
Regime warplanes were hitting the advancing rebels, giving opposition-held areas of eastern areas a respite from air strikes, a correspondent in the city said.
But weary residents did not expect calm for long.
"I don't think the air strikes will stop, because the decision to stop firing isn't in Assad's hands -- it's in the hands of his Russian ally," said Mahmoud Sendeh, a 26-year-old activist in Aleppo's eastern districts.
Suspected regime strikes also pummelled the rebel stronghold of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, the Observatory said, after a temporary freeze on fighting in the area expired overnight.
The district was hit with at least 22 air strikes, but there was no immediate word on casualties, it said.
Russia had said on Tuesday it hoped a new ceasefire for Aleppo could be agreed "within hours" but on Wednesday said truce efforts had been stymied by jihadists.
Russian military spokesman Igor Konashenkov said a plan had been agreed for a "regime of silence" in and around Aleppo but fell apart following rocket attacks by Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate.
In Berlin, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was to hold talks with UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, who already this week has met US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Steinmeier was also to meet with Syria's main opposition leader Riad Hijab and France's top diplomat Jean-Marc Ayrault.
The diplomatic push aims to bring the ceasefire back from the brink and to restore hope for peace talks aimed at finally resolving a five-year war that has left more than 270,000 dead and forced millions from their homes.
France on Wednesday announced it would also host talks with the Saudi, Qatari, Turkish and Emirati foreign ministers next week.
The countries are all key backers of the Syrian opposition and French government spokesman Stephane Le Foll said the Monday meeting would focus on efforts to move deadlocked peace talks forward.
Wednesday's Security Council meeting was called by France and Britain to discuss the situation in Aleppo, with envoys demanding an urgent solution.
"(Aleppo) is to Syria what Sarajevo was to Bosnia," France's UN ambassador Francois Delattre said, while British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said ending fighting in the city needed to be a "top priority".
After returning to Washington from his talks with De Mistura in Geneva, Kerry had warned Assad there would be "repercussions" if his regime flouts any agreement on a ceasefire for Aleppo.
"One of them may be the total destruction of the ceasefire and they go back to war," Kerry told reporters. "I don't think that Russia wants that. I don't think Assad is going to benefit from that."
Syria's conflict erupted in 2011 after anti-government protests were put down, escalating into a multi-front war with consequences including the seizure of large parts of the country by the jihadist Islamic State group.
Meeting with fellow defence ministers in a US-led coalition battling IS in Syria and Iraq, American Defence Secretary Ashton Carter expressed confidence they would pour more military resources into the battle.
There was "common recognition that we must all be prepared to do more," he said after the talks in the German city of Stuttgart, adding that he expected the meeting would "produce additional military commitments".