By Laila Bassam and John Davison
ALEPPO, Syria/BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Syrian army's advance in Aleppo slowed on Thursday but a victory was still firmly in sight after President Bashar al-Assad vowed that retaking the city would change the course of the six-year-old war.
Russia's RIA news agency quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying the Syrian army, which has captured territory including Aleppo's historic Old City in recent days, had halted military activity to let civilians leave rebel-held territory.
However, Reuters reporters in a government-held part of the city said bombardment could still be heard after his remarks were published. Washington said it had no confirmation that the army had ceased fire.
Earlier, a Reuters journalist said government forces were shelling rebel-held areas of southwest Aleppo into the afternoon. Columns of smoke were rising from rebel-held areas.
The last two weeks have seen rebels driven from most of their territory in what was once Syria's largest city, the eastern section of which the insurgents have controlled since 2012.
Although there are still many rural areas in rebel hands, Aleppo is their last big urban redoubt. The prospect of its fall, following months of government gains elsewhere, has brought Assad closer to victory than at any point since the early months of a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands and made half of Syrians homeless.
"Aleppo will completely change the course of the battle in all of Syria," Assad said, speaking in an interview with the Syrian newspaper al-Watan.
Moscow and Washington are trying to negotiate a ceasefire to allow civilians to escape eastern Aleppo and aid to arrive. Russia, which backs the army with air strikes, also wants the United States to urge rebel fighters to abandon their territory and accept transport out, which the Syrian government has provided fighters who agreed to lay down arms elsewhere.
The U.S. State Department said Secretary of State John Kerry had spoken by telephone to Lavrov to discuss a ceasefire. The two also met face to face on the sidelines of a conference in Hamburg.
The rebels have called for an immediate five-day ceasefire and the evacuation of civilians and wounded, but have so far given no indication they are ready to withdraw.
The U.N. assessment for diplomacy was bleak. Russia and the United States were "poles apart", U.N. Syria humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said. Five months of talks over aid plans had all failed and produced "nothing".
"We are ... witnessing talks on Aleppo which are just trying to tailor and to manage the Syrian and Russian victory," a European diplomat told reporters on condition of anonymity.
More than 800 people have been killed and up to 3,500 wounded in eastern Aleppo in the past 26 days, while the remaining trapped civilians await an effective death sentence, the president of Aleppo local council said.
"Today 150,000 people are threatened with extermination. We are calling for a halt to the bombing and guarantees of safe passage of all," Brita Haji Hassan said during a trip to Geneva.
United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said on Thursday he planned to meet "people around the team" of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.
'WAR WILL NOT END'
Fighting raged on around the Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with the Syrian army trying to push into the few remaining rebel-held Aleppo neighborhoods.
Pro-Damascus media reported that Syrian government forces and their allies had launched attacks against insurgents in the Sukkari, Kalasa and Bustan al-Qasr neighborhoods, west and south of the ancient citadel.
An opposition activist in Aleppo said insurgents had staved off the attacks on the latter two districts.
A Syrian military source reported the army and its allies had also advanced in the Sheikh Saeed district in the south of the rebel enclave. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, also reported that.
Outside of Aleppo, the government and its allies were also putting severe pressure on remaining rebel redoubts.
In his interview, Assad said the army advances will completely change the course of the war. He described Aleppo as the "last hope" of rebels and their backers, although he said the war would continue once it falls.
"The battle of Aleppo will be a gain, but ... it doesn't mean the end of the war in Syria. It is a significant landmark towards the end of the battle, but the war in Syria will not end until terrorism is eliminated," he said. Damascus refers to all insurgents as terrorists.
'MAKE A DESERT AND CALL IT PEACE'
Retaking Aleppo would also be a success for President Vladimir Putin who intervened to save Moscow's ally in September 2015 with air strikes, and for Shi'ite Iran, whose elite Islamic Republic Guard Corps has suffered casualties fighting for Assad.
The war has seen the rise of the ultra-hardline Islamic State group, which still controls areas of eastern Syria. Moscow and Damascus say only support for Assad will make it possible to defeat Islamic State. Western countries say Assad's harsh war tactics feed the anger that allowed Islamic State to grow.
The head of Britain's MI6 foreign intelligence agency Alex Younger warned on Thursday that Islamic State was plotting attacks on the West "without ever having to leave Syria".
"Russia and the Syrian regime seek to make a desert and call it peace. The human tragedy is heart-breaking," he added.
Nearly 150 civilians, most disabled or in need of urgent medical care, were evacuated overnight from a hospital in Aleppo's Old City, in the first major evacuation from the eastern sector, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.
It urged "all parties to allow a humanitarian pause," adding that the situation in east Aleppo "is known to be catastrophic".
Tawfik Chamaa, a representative of the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organisations (UOSSM), said 1,500 people needed medical evacuation, but any evacuation should have international observers to prevent them being "executed or diverted on the way to hospital".
(Reporting by Laila Bassam in Aleppo, John Davison in Beirut, Jack Stubbs in Moscow, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by John Davison and Peter Graff; Editing by Andrew Roche and James Dalgleish)