PARIS (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and leading diplomats pleaded Saturday for safe passage for civilians and respect for Syria's crippled opposition, as Syrian government forces neared victory over rebels in Aleppo after a devastating blitz.
With tens of thousands fleeing and prospects increasingly grim for the Western-backed opposition, Kerry insisted that even if Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces conquer Aleppo, "war will not end," because its underlying causes remain unresolved.
Kerry and European and Arab diplomats, meeting Saturday in Paris with Syrian opposition leaders, called for a cease-fire and prepared for a post-battle plan.
They agreed on the need to guarantee that civilians can get much needed food and medical aid after intense bombing, and to ensure that opposition members aren't executed or abused, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said.
But such guarantees hinge on Assad's government and its Russian backers. U.S. and Russian military experts and diplomats are holding closed-door talks in Geneva later Saturday to work out details of the rebels' exit from eastern Aleppo.
Kerry said he is "hopeful" about the Geneva talks but called it "the hardest kind of diplomacy." He and Ayrault also urged a return to negotiations between Assad and his opponents on Syria's political future.
"We are determined to reduce the suffering of a people who have been facing a barbaric war for five years," Ayrault said. He warned that if Russia and Syria don't agree to guarantees for civilians, "millions of displaced people won't be able to return" for fears of persecution.
Russia insists it's allowing civilians out already. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said that Syrian troops have suspended their offensive to allow for the evacuation of civilians.
However, the activist-run Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says heavy clashes are still underway. And Russia, which says it is helping Syria fight Islamic extremists who have staged attacks around the world, has repeatedly blocked U.N. efforts for an internationally monitored humanitarian corridor.
Complicating tensions, some opposition members have "threatened people who were going to leave and in some cases prevented humanitarian assistance," Kerry said, calling it is "absolutely unacceptable."
Kerry insisted that the U.S. is carefully vetting the movement of weapons it provided to opposition forces, amid fears they will fall into extremist hands.
Russia's U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Friday extremists had "subjugated" Syria's opposition. "The phantom concept of the Syrian moderate opposition failed," he said, according to the Tass news agency.
Syrian forces backed by Russia and other allies have taken control in recent days of nearly all of the rebel stronghold in eastern Aleppo, which had been under opposition hands since 2012.
Catherine Gaschka in Paris contributed.