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Belgium summons Russia envoy over Aleppo strike claim

Matthieu DEMEESTERE
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Members of the Syrian Civil Defence search for victims amid the rubble of a destroyed building in Aleppo, on October 17, 2016

Members of the Syrian Civil Defence search for victims amid the rubble of a destroyed building in Aleppo, on October 17, 2016 (AFP Photo/Karam Al-Masri)

Brussels (AFP) - Belgium summoned the Russian ambassador to Brussels on Wednesday in a spat over Moscow's claim that Belgian jets killed six civilians near Syria's Aleppo.

The diplomatic summons was issued after Russia said two Belgian F-16s from the US-led coalition had been identified in the region where the deadly air strike took place Tuesday.

The Russian envoy will be called to appear at the Belgian foreign ministry on Thursday, ministry spokesman Didier Vanderhasselt told AFP, as Brussels issued a fresh denial of involvement in the incident.

"No Belgian Air Force aircraft have been operating over the Aleppo province over the last few days. These accusations are therefore totally groundless and unsubstantiated," Foreign Minister Didier Reynders and Defence Minister Steven Vandeput said in a joint statement.

"Belgium deeply regrets that no prior consultation has taken place with a view to establishing the facts, before accusations were made in public."

Russia's defence ministry said two of Belgium's F-16s fighting Islamic State jihadists in Syria had been identified in the area where the deadly strike took place.

"Six people were killed and four people injured to various degrees as a result of bombing that destroyed two homes" in the village of Hassajik in the Aleppo region, it said in a statement.

- 'Errors' in targeting -

Belgian defence ministry spokeswoman Laurence Mortier earlier denied the country's air force was active in the area at the time.

But responding to the Belgian summons, Russian defence minister spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Moscow was confident of its information.

"Russia has effective air defence capabilities, allowing it to carry out 24-hour monitoring of air activity practically over the whole territory of Syria and beyond its limits," he said.

"We would like to remind you that for the countries of the international coalition that Belgium is part of, such errors in designating targets are not at all something impossible and unfortunately are happening regularly," he added.

Moscow had announced on Tuesday that the Russian and Syrian air forces had stopped bombing Aleppo to pave the way for an eight-hour truce on Thursday.

Russia said Wednesday it was extending the eight-hour truce in Aleppo to 11 hours to allow civilians and rebels to leave the city's rebel-held east.

Moscow also said its planes and Syria regime jets were keeping 10 kiloetres (6.2 miles) away from Aleppo.

The government offensive against rebel-held eastern Aleppo -- which has destroyed hospitals and other civilian infrastructure -- has plunged Syria into some of the worst violence of the five-year war that has claimed over 300,000 lives.

The West has accused Russia of potential war crimes over its bombing campaign in Aleppo in support of the regime offensive.

The US State Department voiced scepticism regarding Moscow's planned truce while welcoming a halt in the bombardments.

President Vladimir Putin is set to face Western pressure over the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine at international talks in Berlin on Wednesday as Russia comes under increasing criticism over its support for Damascus.