Fierce fighting shakes eastern Aleppo as army advances

Sunday 04/12/2016
Offensive threatens to deal opposition its worst defeat

ALEPPO (Syria) - Fierce fighting shook east Aleppo on Sunday as Syrian government forces pressed an assault that has seen them retake control of more than half of the former rebel stronghold.

President Bashar al-Assad's army is nearly three weeks into an operation to recapture all of Syria's second city, divided between regime and rebel forces since 2012.

Tens of thousands of civilians have fled the offensive, which has made steady gains and threatens to deal Syria's opposition its worst defeat of the country's five-year civil war.

On Sunday, heavy fighting was underway in the Myessar district and elsewhere on the outskirts of newly recaptured neighbourhoods in the east.

Syrian state television showed what it said was live footage from the front line, with its correspondent crouched by a building as explosions were heard in the distance and warplanes screeched overhead.

The Syrian army holds more than 60 percent of east Aleppo after seizing the Tariq al-Bab neighbourhood on Friday night and making additional advances on Saturday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitor.

"The army now aims to advance and take control of Shaar district and the surrounding districts to force the rebels to withdraw toward the southeastern neighbourhoods," said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

The army issued a statement overnight urging Syrians from northeastern Aleppo "to return to their homes after the Syrian Arab Army restored security and stability to those districts and state institutions began rehabilitation work."

On Saturday, several hundred people took advantage of the resumption of government buses from west to east to check on homes long abandoned in territory formerly held by rebels.

But the level of destruction in many places meant people were able to do little more than check whether any possessions could be retrieved from ravaged homes.

"This is all we found, this photo of my niece. It is precious to us, and we found a copy of the Koran, so we brought that too," said Um Yayha, 55.

The army began its assault on the east in mid-November, pounding rebel-held neighbourhoods with air strikes, barrel bomb attacks and artillery fire.

The assault has killed at least 311 civilians, including 42 children, according to the Observatory.

Rebel fire on the government-held west of Aleppo has killed 69 civilians, including 28 children, in the same period, the monitor says.

The government advance has prompted an exodus of civilians, with some fleeing south to remaining rebel-held territory and up to 50,000 heading to areas controlled by the government or Kurdish forces.

Russia, a staunch ally of the Syrian government, said Sunday it had delivered 30 trucks of aid to Aleppo.

"It is important for Russia that people do not starve, that the people feel that they are needed both by the Syrian government and by Russia," Russian official Nikolai Ponomaryov told journalists in Aleppo.

East Aleppo has been under government siege since July, with international aid stocks exhausted and remaining food supplies dwindling.

Russia says it is not participating in the offensive in Aleppo, though its forces are continuing to wage the aerial campaign they began in September 2015 elsewhere in the country.

Last month, Moscow said it was beginning a "major operation" in the northwestern Idlib and central Homs provinces.

Idlib is largely controlled by a rebel alliance that includes former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front, while Homs is mostly under government control but includes pockets of rebel territory.

On Sunday, the Observatory said at least 21 civilians, including three children, were killed in an apparent Russian air strike on Kafr Nabal in Idlib.

The Observatory says it determines whose planes carried out raids according to their type, location, flight patterns and the munitions involved.

More than 300,000 people have been killed in Syria's conflict, and several rounds of talks have failed to produce a deal to end the fighting.

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura on Saturday warned of a "creeping, ongoing guerilla (war) and no reconstruction" unless peace talks resumed.

On Sunday the opposition High Negotiations Committee urged the international community to "take immediate action to stop the bombing and massacres targeting several areas in Syria and Aleppo in particular."

Britain's Foreign Minister Boris Johnson meanwhile said regime advances in Aleppo were not a "victory for Assad" as many Syrians would continue to reject his rule.

"The best outcome is for President (Vladimir) Putin and the puppets that he supports to get to the negotiating table and do a deal that moves Syria away from the Assad regime," he said.