HAMBURG, GERMANY - Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says the Syrian government has stopped all active military operations in eastern Aleppo in advance of a meeting between U.S. and Russian military experts on the situation in the devastated city.
Earlier Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was "hopeful" about a potential cease-fire agreement with Russia to end fighting in Aleppo.
After meeting with Lavrov on Thursday in Hamburg, Kerry told reporters he was still waiting for "certain feedback and input," but added, "We're working on something here," without going into further detail.
The Russian foreign minister said, "An agreement has been reached for our military experts and diplomats to meet on Saturday in Geneva to finish the work that was being done on all these days on the document that defines ways and means for a final solution of the problem of eastern Aleppo, according to which all the militants leave it as well as those civilians who want to do so."
In New York, the United Nations Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, welcomed the Russian announcement, but told reporters he could not independently verify that fighting had stopped or that civilians have been evacuated. The U.N. also will take part in Saturday's talks in Geneva, he said.
The Russian announcement came during a closed-door meeting of the U.N. Security Council, de Mistura said. The Russian ambassador did not tell the other Council members how long the suspension of combat operations around Aleppo would last, the U.N. official added.
As for evacuations from Aleppo, de Mistura said, "The figure which was being mentioned that could be coming is about 8,000 civilians."
The withdrawal of fighters from eastern Aleppo would include the group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, de Mistura told reporters, as well as other armed groups.
"The fact that there are discussions about how to address that in a proper way and in a safe way is an important potential development," he added.
However, rebels in Aleppo have called for a five-day cease-fire to ensure the humanitarian evacuation of civilians before any talks on the future of Aleppo.
From Syria, word came Thursday that President Bashar al-Assad says his soldiers will continue fighting until the five-year civil war is over. He did not mention the U.S.-Russian-U.N. talks, but said there could be no expectation of a truce in Aleppo as long as rebels remain in the city.
A victory for his regime in Aleppo would represent a huge step toward ending the prolonged conflict, Assad said in an interview with the state-owned newspaper al-Watan. He discussed the long-running effort to oust him from power one day after his forces gained control over three-quarters of Aleppo's Old City, which had been held by rebel forces since 2012.
Jan Egeland, senior adviser to the U.N. envoy to Syria, said at a press briefing that Syria has given the U.N. permission to enter eastern Aleppo, but the organization is unable to deliver aid to the city if there is no pause in fighting.
"A humanitarian corridor is only a humanitarian corridor if there is cease-fire in and around the corridor," Egeland said. "There has to be a pause. At the moment those who try to go through the crossing point, try to escape, are caught in crossfire, they are caught in shelling, they ... risk being hit by snipers."
The International Committee of the Red Cross said Thursday that it had evacuated about 150 civilians in need of urgent medical care from a hospital in Aleppo's Old City.
Tens of thousands of civilians are thought to be trapped in eastern Aleppo despite a surge of refugees during the past two weeks, heading for the relative safety of government-controlled western districts. Monitors last week estimated that 18,000 civilians in the east had moved into western neighborhoods, and more than 9,000 others into a Kurdish-controlled district.
De Mistura said he believes fewer than 100,000 people are left in the besieged eastern part of the Aleppo, "not the large number we had envisaged in the past." Recent estimates had listed eastern Aleppo's population at between 250,000 and 275,000 people. Aleppo was Syria's largest city before the civil war, with an estimated population of up to 2.5 million.
At the current rate, the U.N. envoy has estimated the uprising against Assad would lose control of all parts of Aleppo by the end of this month.
On Friday, the U.N. General Assembly will meet to vote on a non-binding resolution calling for an immediate end to sieges and a cessation of hostilities, as well as access for humanitarian aid convoys.
The move comes as the assembly seeks ways to circumvent the divided 15-nation Security Council. In the latest show of disunity, on Monday, Russia and China blocked adoption of a resolution calling for a seven-day cease-fire to get aid in and the sick and wounded out.
"Well, sadly, I suspect it will be too little, too late," British ambassador Matthew Rycroft told reporters. "But what I hope that it will do is to demonstrate that there is a moral majority here, there are states who are not on the Security Council but have very strong views about peace and security, and who are distressed that through a series of vetoes the Security Council has failed to provide the unity necessary to change the situation in Syria."
A General Assembly resolution cannot force action, but it would send a message of moral outrage from the international community.
State Department correspondent Steve Herman and U.N. correspondent Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.