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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a Security Council meeting, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, at U.N. headquarters.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a Security Council meeting, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, at U.N. headquarters. (Julie Jacobson/Associated Press)

WASHINGTON – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday called on Russia and Syria to cease flying over Aleppo, just days after a convoy carrying human-aid supplies to civilians in the besieged city was attacked by warplanes.

“I believe we must move forward and try to immediately ground all aircraft flying in those key areas in order to de-escalate the situation and give a chance for humanitarian assistance to flow unimpeded,” Kerry said Wednesday at the U.N. Security Council. “If that happens there’s a chance of giving credibility back to this (cease-fire) process.”

The American and Russian brokered cease-fire that went into effect nine days ago appears all but dead, following the Monday night attack on the humanitarian convoy just southwest of Aleppo that killed at least 20 people.

U.S. officials have blamed Russia or Syria for the attack, while the Russians have denied either party was involved. On Wednesday, Russia claimed a U.S. military drone was in the area during the two-hour attack, implying the American military was responsible for the attack.

It was at least the fourth differing account the Russians have provided of the incident, Kerry said as he asked other Security Council members to use common sense and realize “only two countries have airplanes that fly in that particular area – Russia and Syria.”

A senior Pentagon official on Wednesday denied any coalition aircraft were anywhere near the site of the attack. He added the coalition does not fly near Aleppo because there are no Islamic State group targets in the area.

“We did not have any aircraft flying in that area at that time,” said the defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But the Pentagon would welcome the grounding of Syrian and Russian aircraft over Aleppo, the official said. It would be a first step toward shifting the direction of the cease-fire, which originally called for the U.S. and Russian militaries to begin working together to target the Islamic State group and the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front in Syria.

The Americans had taken the necessary steps to begin preparing the proposed joint command center with the Russians, Air Force Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said Tuesday. A location for the operations center had been chosen and face-to-face meetings were set to begin soon. But after the convoy attack, he said, the United States was no longer “anticipating any great progress anytime soon.”

It leaves the U.S. military sitting and waiting on word from the State Department and the United Nations that the cease-fire has either officially been terminated or that the Syrian and Russian militaries have taken the appropriate steps to move forward with the deal initially struck.

That original deal included the grounding of all Syrian warplanes in areas controlled by opposition groups. It did not initially call for Russian planes to cease flying in any specific areas, but after the aid convoy attack, Kerry said there are few options remaining for them to prove they are committed to ending the violence in the country and allowing civilians to get much-needed humanitarian assistance.

The top American diplomat said though the original cease-fire plan was not perfect, he remained committed to seeing it through. But that is only possible if the Russians and Syrians do their parts, Kerry said.

“It will take significant and immediate steps now to try to get things back on track,” he said. “… The United States continues to believe there is a way forward that -- although rocky and difficult and uncertain -- can provide the most viable path out of the carnage. Our shared task here (with Russia) is to find the way to use the tools of diplomacy to make that happen.” Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.
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