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Syrian government forces advance on Aleppo two weeks after ceasefire

A front loader removes debris in a damaged site after airstrikes on the rebel held Tariq al-Bab neighbourhood of Aleppo,
         Syria September 24, 2016. Photo By Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters

A front loader removes debris in a damaged site after airstrikes on the rebel held Tariq al-Bab neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria September 24, 2016. Photo By Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters

Nearly two weeks after a tenuous ceasefire was declared in Syria, Russian and Syrian government warplanes on Saturday pounded rebel-held territory with a barrage of airstrikes in the embattled city of Aleppo.

The attacks allowed government troops to capture a key area encompassing a Palestinian refugee camp located north of the city, which is on higher ground above a main road into Aleppo, according to Reuters.

Dozens of people have reportedly been killed during the strikes, which began on Thursday. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 33 people were killed, including some children.

Witnesses near the scene of the strikes described massive carnage and toppled buildings surrounded by rubble and hospitals filled with those wounded by the airstrikes.

Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem addresses the United Nations General Assembly in the Manhattan borough of New
         York, U.S., September 24, 2016. Photo By Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem addresses the United Nations General Assembly in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S., September 24, 2016. Photo By Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Running water has also been cut off in recent days to nearly 2 million people living in sections of Aleppo controlled by each side of the conflict. At least 250,000 civilians are now trapped in an area of Aleppo controlled by opposition forces.

The United Nations said on Friday that it would increase emergency water supplies as a “temporary solution.”

“In the eastern part of Aleppo, the population will have to resort to highly contaminated well water,” a statement released by the organization read. “In the western part, existing deep ground water wells will provide a safe alternative water source.”

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said during the United Nations General Assembly on Saturday in New York that the government is gaining territory with the assistance of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon.

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News Wrap: Tulsa officer charged with Terence Crutcher death turns herself in

Tulsa, Oklahoma Police Officer Betty Shelby, 42, charged with first-degree
         manslaughter in the death of 40-year-old Terence Crutcher, is shown in this Tulsa County Jail booking photo in Tulsa, Oklahoma,
         U.S., September 23, 2016.  Courtesy Tulsa County Jail/Handout via REUTERS    ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY
         A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY - RTSP3ZU

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JUDY WOODRUFF:  In the day’s other news:  A Tulsa, Oklahoma, police officer accused of fatally shooting an unarmed black man turned herself in early today.

Betty Shelby is charged with first-degree manslaughter.  She was released after posting a $50,000 bond.  Her first court appearance is next week.

Republican Donald Trump got a boost today ahead of the first presidential debate on Monday night.  In a reversal, former rival Texas Senator Ted Cruz announced that he will vote for Trump after all.  Writing on Facebook, Cruz said: “I promised to support the Republican nominee.  And I intend to keep my word.”

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s camp called for increased scrutiny of Trump at the debate.  A spokeswoman said — quote — “His level of lying is unprecedented in American politics.”

A federal appeals court has struck down Ohio’s process for purging voters from the rolls if they haven’t voted in at least two years.  The court ruled today that the process removes people who are in fact still eligible to vote.  The state’s Republican elections chief defended the process, saying that Ohio has used it for more than 20 years.

Bombs rained down on Syria’s largest city today in the fiercest aerial onslaught there yet.  The heavy air attacks on Aleppo came as the Syrian government’s military launched a new offensive to retake the city with backing from Russia.  Rescuers worked to dig out victims buried beneath the rubble, but they came under fire themselves.

IBRAHIM AL-HAJ, Syrian Civil Defense (through translator):  We weren’t able to help them quickly because of the shelling that we were subjected to as we were pulling them from under the debris all night.  I have never in my life seen such a bombardment.  It is very, very intense.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  The assault on Aleppo appeared to shred any remaining hope of reviving last week’s cease-fire.  Still, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says that he and his Russian counterpart made — quote — “a little bit of progress” in talks today.

Back in this country, a veto showdown now looms over an act of Congress permitting families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia, the home of most of the hijackers.  President Obama rejected the bill today, saying that it could boomerang against U.S. troops and diplomats abroad.  Even so, the House and Senate may have the votes to override the veto.

And on Wall Street, stocks slumped after a new drop in oil prices.  The Dow Jones industrial average lost 131 points to close at 18261.  The Nasdaq fell 33, and the S&P 500 slid 12.  For the week, all three indexes gained about 1 percent.

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Anticipating peace, FARC holds final summit as an armed rebel group

Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) commander Ivan Marquez
         and members of the leadership attend a news conference at the camp where they prepare to ratify a peace deal with the Colombian
         government, near El Diamante in Yari Plains, Colombia, September 23, 2016.  REUTERS/John Vizcaino - RTSP66T

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JUDY WOODRUFF: This coming Monday, in Cartagena, Colombia, a peace deal will be signed that aims to end more than 50 years of war. The accord also will mark the end of the insurgency by the revolutionary armed forces of Colombia, known as the FARC.

Hari Sreenivasan has more.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All this week, the guerrilla group has been meeting at a desolate location in Southern Colombia. Today, unanimously, the FARC voted to approve the deal and form a new political party.

After the signing this coming Monday, the accord must survive one more hurdle, a nationwide popular referendum next weekend.

Special correspondent Nadja Drost has been at this meeting all week, and joins me now.

Nadja, we usually don’t talk about political conventions in other countries. And the images that I have seen from here have sound stages, fog machines. It seems almost like a musical festival. Give us a sense of what it was like there.

NADJA DROST: Well, to give you a sense of where we are, we are in the middle of the Colombian plains, essentially the middle of nowhere, and we’re surrounded by miles and miles of shrubland.

It might strike one as a strange place to hold an enormous conference, but this is a FARC stronghold and it has significant historical meaning for the rebel group.

The conference that the FARC has been holding here this week is historic. It is their final conference as an armed group. Here, they have made the decision to terminate their armed existence and they have been plotting their strategy to transform to a political party.

As you mentioned, there are sound stages, concerts. There are also guerrilla camps. They’re really going all out. It looks like the FARC are using this as an opportunity to introduce a new face to the Colombian and international public. With over 300 journalists here camped out in the middle of nowhere, it’s a chance for the FARC to change the image of them as a narco-terrorist group to a group of rebels who very much want peace and want to transform themselves to become political actors.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, so what’s the next step here? How do they move forward to disarm?

NADJA DROST: If the peace accords do receive approval from the Colombian public, then FARC troops, thousands of them, will start mobilizing themselves into large areas that are being called zones of concentration, where they will stay put for six months as they start a gradual process of disarmament.

But FARC leaders here this week said that they need assurance that an amnesty law will be passed before their troops can move anywhere. They are demanding that they have legal protections to ensure their troops are not going to get arrested as they move on that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What are the indications in how that referendum vote will go?

NADJA DROST: It is leaning more towards the side of accepting the peace deal. However, there is a very strong campaign, being led mostly by former President Alvaro Uribe, in rejection of the peace deal.

However, both sides of the negotiation, both the FARC and the government, have made very clear that, if the no side wins, if the public rejects this peace deal, there is no way that they are going back to the negotiating table.

One of the FARC head negotiators, Carlos Antonio Lozada, told reporters that there is not even the remotest possibility. And on the government side, it’s expected that in the case that this referendum fails the peace process, then we will likely not see another negotiation for at least 10 years.

So both the FARC and the government are sending a very strong message to the public that this is Colombia’s best, if not possibly last chance for peace.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Nadja, you have covered the FARC for a long time. How did we get to this point?

NADJA DROST: There have been many attempts in the past decades to end this conflict, both through negotiation or through military means.

Essentially, both sides have become very tired of war. Colombia has lived now in 52 years of war. The FARC has suffered year after year of military blows. Their ranks have been shrinking. And despite very strong military campaigns, the Colombian government has not defeated them entirely.

So, I think that it became clear to both sides that this war was going to be intractable unless a negotiation took place.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, special correspondent Nadja Drost joining us from Colombia tonight, thanks so much.

NADJA DROST: Thank you so much.

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Launching new strikes, defiant Assad blames U.S. for failed cease-fire

Members of the Civil Defence rescue children after what activists
         said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria
         June 2, 2014. REUTERS/Sultan Kitaz/File Photo     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTSOYP4

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GWEN IFILL: The Syrian army announced late today the beginning of a major new offensive against the rebel-held eastern sectors of Aleppo. This came after a defiant Bashar al-Assad blamed the United States for the failure of a cease-fire agreement struck two weeks ago.

Hari Sreenivasan reports.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A rain of fire lit up Aleppo, Syria, overnight. It was one of scores of airstrikes, the most in months, and it proved a thundering, brutal answer to Secretary of State John Kerry’s plea for the Syrian military and its Russian allies to ground their jets.

Airstrikes resumed Monday, hours after a U.S.- and Russian-brokered cease-fire expired. In an interview broadcast today, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told the Associated Press the blame lies squarely with Washington and its allies.

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD, Syria (through translator): We announced that we are ready to be committed to any halt of operations, or if you want to call it, cease-fire, but it’s not about Syria or Russia. It’s about the United States and the terrorist groups that have been affiliated to ISIS and al-Nusra and al-Qaida, and to the United States and to Turkey and to Saudi Arabia.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The White House today rejected that charge, but Assad went further, insisting the U.S. deliberately targeted Syrian forces in a weekend airstrike. The U.S. military says that was a mistake.

At the same time, Assad denied any Syrian or Russian involvement in the attack on a humanitarian aid convoy outside Aleppo on Monday. In Washington, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Marine General Joseph Dunford went before the Senate Armed Services Committee, and rejected Assad’s denial.

The general also acknowledged a rift with the State Department over a cease-fire provision calling for military coordination with the Russians in Syria.

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff: Chairman, I do not believe it would be a good idea to share intelligence with Russians.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Committee chair Republican John McCain pressed Dunford on whether the Obama administration’s Syria policy, which prioritizes fighting the Islamic State and other militant groups and not Assad, is working.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-Ariz.): I’m asking, is our military strategy succeeding in Syria?

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD: Our military strategy is focused on the counter-ISIL campaign. In my judgment, we are succeeding in that campaign.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: So, as far as you’re concerned, we ignore the 400,000 dead and the six million refugees that’s caused by Bashar Assad?

HARI SREENIVASAN: As that hearing was under way in Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry was in New York, meeting with the Russian foreign minister and the International Syria Support Group in a bid to revive the cease-fire. Prospects appeared doubtful, and Moscow announced it’s sending its only aircraft carrier to the Mediterranean Sea to begin new air operations in Syria.

And outside Damascus, the United Nations resumed deliveries of food and medicine, sending a convoy into a suburb of the Syrian capital.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Hari Sreenivasan.

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