Syrian rebel commanders in war-ravaged Aleppo say they will not surrender the city's eastern sector to Russia-backed government forces, despite a government offensive that threatens to drive out opposition fighters after a four-year occupation.
"I asked the factions. They said, 'We will not surrender,' " said commander Zakaria Malahifji in comments Saturday to Reuters. He spoke from Turkey, where a select group of rebel leaders was reported to be holding secret talks with Russian envoys on the monthslong Aleppo crisis.
"There is no problem with corridors for civilians to leave, but we will not leave the city," Malahifji said.
Smoke rises in the east Aleppo neighborhood of Tariq al-Bab after insurgents militants launch a mortar shell on government soldiers in Syria, Dec. 3, 2016.
Malahifji spoke hours after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was ready for talks with Washington to, in his words, "ensure the withdrawal of all rebels without exception from eastern Aleppo."
Lavrov's remarks came after a meeting Friday in Rome with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Further talks between the two diplomats were set for next week in Geneva.
Offensive in eastern Aleppo
Meanwhile, Syrian warplanes and artillery on Saturday again pounded eastern Aleppo, where observers said an alliance of Syrian and Russian forces, their Shi'ite Hezbollah allies and Shi'ite Iranian militia has seized 60 percent of the sector since mid-November.
Syria's state-run news agency carried photos Saturday of Defense Minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij leading government officials on an inspection tour of government military positions established since ground forces intensified their push into the east early last week.
Nearby, monitors from the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported fierce clashes and airstrikes in a half-dozen contested eastern neighborhoods. The observatory also said rebels seeking to topple the government of President Bashar al-Assad fought back with with rocket fire and mortar.
Tens of thousands of civilians are thought to be trapped in Aleppo, despite a huge uptick of refugees fleeing the combat in the past 10 days.
A Syrian army tank is seen in front of a wall with Arabic that reads "Aleppo is the capital of culture" in the east Aleppo neighborhood of Tariq al-Bab, Syria, Dec. 3, 2016.
Monitors estimate 18,000 civilians have moved into government-controlled western Aleppo, and nearly 9,000 others into a Kurdish-controlled district, since government troops breached the northeast perimeter of eastern Aleppo early last week.
U.N. special envoy Stefan de Mistura, speaking Friday at a Rome conference on humanitarian aid to Aleppo, said he expected eastern Aleppo to fall to government forces by the end of the year, without a negotiated settlement.
De Mistura said he expected a "terrible battle" in the coming weeks. "I hope the battle will not take place, that there will be some type of formula" to end the onslaught, he said.