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September, 29, 2016

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Aleppo set ablaze ahead of renewed diplomatic efforts

ALEPPO, Syria--Huge blazes erupted in Syria's Aleppo as the city was rocked by fighting and air strikes on Thursday, ahead of last-ditch efforts by world powers to salvage a failed cease-fire.

The top diplomats from the United States and Russia were to meet with other key players in New York later Thursday, after U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Syria's peace process was facing a "make or break moment."

The truce deal brokered by Moscow and Washington fell apart earlier this week, ushering in a surge of fighting on all major fronts of Syria's five-year civil war.

Heavy clashes gripped the outskirts of Aleppo on Thursday, after air strikes triggered major fires across the city's devastated rebel-held districts.

An AFP correspondent in the eastern Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood reported that his entire street was in flames following the pre-dawn strikes.

Volunteer firefighters battled throughout the night to contain the blazes, which local activists at the Aleppo Media Centre said were caused by "incendiary phosphorous bombs."

In footage posted by the group, a ball of flame shoots up over the city, lighting up the skyline and sparking fires on the horizon.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 14 strikes on the rebel-held neighborhoods of Bustan al-Qasr and Al-Kalasseh "led to massive fires" overnight.

Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said they were "the most intense strikes in months" on those two districts and that they had killed seven people, including three women and three children.

'Non-stop strikes'

"The non-stop strikes last night were so violent I can't even describe them," said Ibrahim Abu al-Leith, spokesman for the White Helmets, a prominent Syrian group of emergency responders.

One volunteer was wounded in the strikes and ensuing fires, Abu al-Leith told AFP.

The White Helmets on Thursday won the Right Livelihood Award "for their outstanding bravery, compassion and humanitarian engagement," announced the jury for the Swedish human rights award, known as the "alternative Nobel prize."

Fresh air strikes also hit Aleppo's Sukkari neighborhood, the Observatory said, and fierce clashes hit the southwestern district of Ramussa, where rebel groups are fighting off a government offensive.

Even as violence escalated, the U.N. resumed aid deliveries Thursday in its first operation since a strike on a humanitarian convoy in Syria's north.

"Today we are sending an inter-agency, cross-line convoy with urgently needed aid to people in a besieged area of rural Damascus," U.N. humanitarian agency (OCHA) spokesman Jens Laerke said.

Monday's strike on the aid convoy was furiously condemned by humanitarian organizations and prompted the U.N. to briefly halt its operations in Syria.

Diplomatic efforts to end Syria's complex war were set to continue in New York with a new meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) on Thursday.

The ISSG, chaired by Moscow and Washington, met for an hour earlier this week but made little headway in agreeing on the next steps to end the war that has killed 300,000 people.

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In this photo provided by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, rescue workers work the site of airstrikes in the al-Sakhour neighborhood of the rebel-held part of eastern Aleppo, Syria, Wednesday, Sept. 21. (AP)

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