Russia and the Syrian government are beginning a massive humanitarian operation in the besieged northern city of Aleppo, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Thursday.

The operation aimed at helping the civilian population will also provide assistance to militants who surrender their weapons, Shoigu said, according to Russian state news agency TASS.

An estimated 250,000 to 300,000 civilians are thought to remain in Aleppo's opposition-held sector where government forces have imposed a tight siege after blocking all supply routes.

The Syrian government opened three humanitarian corridors for residents willing to leave the rebel-held neighbourhoods, Aleppo Governor Mohammed Marwan said.

They will be provided with temporary accommodation, he told Syrian state news agency SANA.

An unspecified number of people left through one corridor for regime-controlled neighbourhoods in western Aleppo, a monitoring group said.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, government helicopters dropped leaflets with maps showing the exit routes.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said the corridors must ensure the safety and respect to all civilians, regardless of whether they decide to leave.

Any effort to provide "civilians some respite from the ongoing and indiscriminate violence, and allows them to voluntarily leave for safer areas, would be much welcomed", ICRC's Robert Mardini said.

However, he said corridors "have to be implemented with the consent of parties on all sides."

Activist Mahmoud al-Shami, who is based in eastern Aleppo, told dpa via Facebook that residents inside the city see the initiative as a "propaganda ploy" by President Bashar al-Assad's regime and Moscow.

"They want us to leave and then they will arrest all of us," al-Shami added. 

The United Nations said it was surprised by the humanitarian corridors. "We were not consulted," UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura told reporters in Geneva.

UN humanitarian affairs chief Stephen O'Brien said the security of humanitarian corridors must be guaranteed by all parties and their use should be voluntary.

"No one can be forced to flee, by any specific route or to any particular location," O'Brien said. "Protection must be guaranteed for all according to the principles of neutrality and impartiality."

Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN, posted a letter to Twitter sent by Syria's ambassador to the UN Security Council that said the Syrian army had informed eastern Aleppo residents of the safe passages and accommodation to those deciding to leave.

Power called the letter "chilling," and said via Twitter that the Syrian UN ambassador "warns Syrians to leave E Aleppo & entrust lives to gov that's bombed & starved them."

Matthew Rycroft, British ambassador to the UN, was guardedly optimistic about the Russian proposal, saying Britain "would welcome it if it were a humanitarian initiative ... let's very much hope and insist that it is."

On Tuesday, Syrian state media reported that government forces had called on civilians and rebel fighters to leave eastern Aleppo, after they had blocked Castello Road, the last route into opposition-held districts in the city earlier this month.

In Paris, the French and British foreign ministers called for ending the siege of Aleppo before Syria peace negotiations can start again.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and his British counterpart Boris Johnson said Moscow must wield its influence to restart peace negotiations as "only Russia has the ability to convince Bashar al-Assad's regime to end the war and return to the negotiating table."

Aleppo, Syria's largest city before the war, has been divided between the government-held west and the rebel-held east since mid-2012.

Regime forces have made gains against the rebels since Russia started an air campaign in Syria in support of al-Assad in September 2015.

Al-Assad on Thursday offered an amnesty to rebels who surrender in the next three months, SANA reported.

In power since 2000, al-Assad has portrayed his deadly crackdown on the opposition as a "war on terrorism."

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch accused al-Assad and his Russian allies of "extensively" using the widely banned cluster munitions on rebel-held areas.

The group said that it had documented 47 cluster munition attacks that killed and injured dozens of civilians in opposition-controlled territory across three Syrian provinces over the past two months.

Related stories

Latest news

Syrian opposition rules out future role for President al-Assad

The Syrian opposition said Friday it would not accept any role for President Bashar al-Assad in the future of the war-torn country, reacting to a recent US shift saying that removing al-Assad is no longer a priority for Washington.

Russian Army integrates breakaway forces of Georgian province

Parts of the small fighting forces of the Georgian breakaway province of South Ossetia have been placed under Russian military control, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Friday.

Czech Republic's Pilsner Urquell beer is now Japanese

Japanese brewing company Asahi completed its takeover of the Czech brewery Pilsner Urquell on Friday, Asahi said in a statement.

Judge approves 25-million-dollar settlement of Trump University case

A US district judge on Friday approved a 25-million-dollar settlement of lawsuits and state fraud allegations against Trump University, the US president's now-defunct business venture.

Former Thai premier Thaksin to junta on reconciliation: 'Cut me out'

Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Friday announced that he is not interested in the junta-led reconciliation process, three days after the junta handed him a half-a-billion-dollar tax bill for his past business deal.

Dalic: We welcome possible deal between Agrokor and banks

The government welcomes the possibility of an agreement being concluded between the Agrokor food company and creditor banks, and the bill on vitally important companies is not a fallback plan but the result of the government's care for the overall economic and financial stability of Croatia, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy Martina Dalic told a press conference in Zagreb on Friday.

Croatia, China sign action plan for cooperation in agriculture

The Croatian and Chinese ministries of agriculture on Friday signed an action plan for cooperation in the field of agriculture for the period 2017-2018, the Croatian ministry said in a statement.

ZSE indices up, Agrokor shares in focus of investor interest

The Zagreb Stock Exchange (ZSE) indices on Friday rose by more than 1.8%, with stocks of the Agrokor food and retail concern being in the focus of investor interest again.

Berlin police defend handling of Berlin market attacker

Berlin police defended themselves on Friday against accusations that they stopped surveillance on Berlin Christmas market attacker despite knowing in June 2016 he was dangerous.

Croatia, creditors tailor emergency measures to save tottering giant

Croatia's tottering retail and food giant Agrokor reached an agreement with its creditors, putting its debts standby and allowing it to continue working during emergency restructuring, the Croatian branch of Austria's Erste Bank said Friday.

Agrokor's creditors say standstill agreement to go into force today

A standstill agreement regarding the Agrokor concern's existing financial obligations to banks will take effect on Friday, additional capital will be injected into the concern in the coming days and the concern will be actively restructured, which includes a change of its management, it was said on Friday after a meeting between Agrokor's suppliers and creditor banks.

Palestinians, UN slam Israel's new settlement plan

Palestinians, Israeli activists and the UN lambasted the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday, a day after it gave the go-ahead for the first new West Bank settlement in a quarter of a century.

South Sudan rebels release three abducted foreign oil workers

South Sudanese rebels have released three foreign engineers they abducted in early March in the oil-rich Upper Nile region, Foreign Affairs Ministry official Mawein Makol Arik said on Friday.

Turkish opposition: Imprisoned party chief has gone on hunger strike

The head of Turkey's pro-Kurdish opposition party has launched a hunger strike from prison.

European leagues threaten Champions League schedule clashes

The European Professional Football Leagues (EPFL) on Friday threatened schedule clashes on Champions League matchdays in an ongoing dispute with the governing body UEFA.

Danish court revokes citizenship of IS volunteer

A Danish appellate court on Friday stripped a man of his Danish citizenship for volunteering to fight for the extremist Islamic State in Syria.

Banks and Agrokor agree on key elements of standstill agreement

Member banks of the coordinating committee of financial creditors and representatives of the Agrokor food company have in principle agreed on key elements of a standstill agreement, which is expected to be signed later today, announcing changes in the company's management team, Erste Bank said in a statement on Friday afternoon.

Syrian man on trial in Sweden; mosque attack labelled terrorism

A Syrian man went on trial Friday in the southern Swedish city of Malmo, charged with terrorism and arson after an attack last year on a building used as an assembly hall by Shiite Muslims.