Overnight shelling and over a dozen airstrikes on rebel-held parts of the Syrian city of Aleppo killed at least 11 people, bringing the death toll over the last three days in the embattled city to at least 65, activists said today.
Meanwhile, rebel shelling of government-held areas in the divided city killed two girls at a school. The airstrikes came a day after an air raid hit eastern Aleppo's biggest market, killing at least 15 people and leveling buildings.
Aleppo's unabating violence has given additional urgency to the upcoming meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry on efforts to find a peace deal in Syria in Switzerland on Saturday. It will be the first face-to-face contact between the two men since Washington broke off bilateral diplomatic contact with Moscow on Syria over the violence in Aleppo earlier this month.
In other developments in Syria's multi-layered conflict, two Iraqi militia commanders said today they have started withdrawing some of their elite forces from Syria, where they are fighting on the side of President Bashar Assad's government, to Iraq in preparation for the battle to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State group.
The battle for Mosul is expected to be the most complex yet for Iraqi forces, backed by US-led coalition air-power.
Since Mosul first fell to IS in June 2014, the extremists have been pushed from more than half of the territory they once held in Iraq, according to figures released by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's office.
Iraqi Shiite militias are not expected to take part in the operation, although they are likely to be part of the offensive to capture areas nearby such as the town of Tal Afar, which used to have a large Shiite population.
The two commanders, from Iraq's powerful Asaib Ahl Haq and Kataib Hezbollah militias, said more than 2,000 of their fighters have been withdrawn from Syria, mostly from in and around Aleppo, for redeployment near Mosul and the IS stronghold of Hawija. The two spoke to The Associated Press in Baghdad on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss military tactics.
But two Syrian opposition activists - Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Turkey-based Ahmad al-Ahmad - said they were unaware of the withdrawal, adding that Iraqi Shiite militias have recently sent reinforcements to Syrian government forces in the Aleppo area.
Earlier this month, an official with the Iraqi Shiite al-Nujaba militia said it sent some 4,000 fighters to Syria, also to the Aleppo area. The two Iraqi commanders said the al-Nujaba militiamen were not part of the pullout.
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