MOSCOW — The entire territory of Syria must be “liberated,” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said in remarks televised Saturday, dismissing demands for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s departure as “thoughtless.”

The Russian statement came as intense clashes were reported in northern Syria between Turkish troops and Turkey-backed opposition fighters with Kurdish-led forces. The Syrian army command condemned the fresh offensive by Turkish troops inside Syria, describing it as “an occupation that will be dealt with by all available means.”

The Turkish military intervened in the Syrian war in August this year under orders from Ankara to clear the border area of Islamic State fighters and U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces linked to Turkey’s own outlawed Kurdish insurgency. The Turkish government considers both to be terrorist groups.

Russia’s Dmitry Peskov said Assad needs to stay in power to prevent Syria from falling into the hands of jihadis.

“There are just two options: Assad sitting in Damascus or the Nusra sitting in Damascus,” Peskov said in a reference to the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s branch in Syria. “And Assad must sit in Damascus to ensure a political settlement.”

Peskov’s statement comes as the break in the fighting Russia has declared in the besieged city of Aleppo entered its third day. He said Russia’s decision to extend the break, which was initially declared for just one day Thursday, wasn’t a concession to Western pressure.

The U.N. greeted the lull intended to allow the evacuation of wounded civilians and fighters from the rebel-held eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo that had been devastated by airstrikes, but the rebels have rejected the offer to evacuate.

A U.N. official told The Associated Press that Syrian opposition fighters were blocking the evacuations because the Syrian government and Russia were not holding up their end of the deal and were impeding deliveries of medical and humanitarian supplies into Aleppo.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the West was turning a blind eye to the al-Qaida militants blocking humanitarian aid deliveries to Aleppo and trying to shift the blame onto Moscow.

“It’s mean and cynical to … watch the Nusra block the delivery of food and medicines to civilians while blaming Russia for the humanitarian catastrophe in Aleppo,” she said.


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