Aleppo hospital hit by Assad regime airstrikes
Aleppo hospital hit by Assad regime airstrikesReuters

Syria's army on Thursday halted its attacks in Aleppo to allow for trapped civilians to be evacuated, Russia's foreign minister announced.

The announcement came as Syrian regime forces cornered rebels in the city.

"I can tell you that today combat operations by the Syrian army have been halted in eastern Aleppo because there is a large operation underway to evacuate civilians," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

"There is going to be to a column of 8,000 evacuees" travelling five kilometers (three miles), Lavrov said after talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in the German city of Hamburg.

In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Lavrov's announcement was "an indication that something positive could happen".

A senior State Department official said Lavrov and Kerry spoke again by phone late Thursday and "agreed to continue having discussions about establishing a framework for a ceasefire".

There was no immediate reaction from Damascus, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said the fighting had eased.

Air strikes ceased and artillery fire was far less intense, according to an AFP correspondent in east Aleppo.

Moscow is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and launched an air war in support of his forces last year, while Washington and other Western nations have supported rebel forces.

Russia this week suggested a deal was in the works for rebels to be allowed to withdraw from Aleppo to other opposition-held territory.

On the strength of his army's latest gains in territory of east Aleppo held by the rebels, Assad said in a newspaper interview Thursday that victory for his troops would be a turning point in Syria's five-year war.

Three weeks into a major offensive to retake all of Aleppo, government troops have captured about 85 percent of territory rebels controlled in the city's east.

The UN earlier on Thursday renewed its call for an immediate ceasefire in Aleppo, warning that as many as 500 sick and injured children desperately needed to be evacuated.

"There has to be a pause," said Jan Egeland, head of the UN-backed humanitarian taskforce for Syria.

"At the moment, those who... try to escape are caught in crossfire, they are caught in shelling, (and) risk being hit by snipers."

Rebels seized control of large parts of Aleppo in 2012, dividing Syria's former commercial hub into an opposition-held east and government-controlled west.

For years Aleppo was a key battleground and important rebel stronghold, but Assad's forces have recently made a concerted push to retake the city.

In the last week government forces steadily gained ground until on Wednesday -- after a highly symbolic retreat from the Old City -- the rebels called for the ceasefire to allow thousands of civilians to evacuate.

Assad's government has said a truce is only possible after a full rebel withdrawal, and opposition fighters have rejected any talk of abandoning Aleppo.

AFP contributed to this report.