Fresh fighting rocks Aleppo as rebels battle to break siege

Sunday 30/10/2016
Key battleground

ALEPPO (Syria) - Fresh fighting shook Aleppo Saturday as rebels battled to break a siege of the city by the Syrian regime, accused by Washington of using starvation as a weapon of war.

Opposition fighters have unleashed a barrage of rockets on the government-held western side of the divided city as part of a major offensive announced Friday to reopen supply lines.

More than 250,000 people live in the bombed-out eastern parts of Aleppo, encircled by government troops and allied militia since July without access to food or humanitarian aid.

"In just a few days, we will open the way for our besieged brothers," rebel commander Abu Mustafa said Saturday from the frontline district of Dahiyet al-Assad, on the southwestern outskirts of Aleppo.

He said advancing rebels would work their way east through a sprawling military complex then to the district of Al-Hamdaniyeh to break through government lines.

Syrian state news agency SANA said rockets fired by opposition groups on Saturday wounded six people including a child in two regime-held districts.

Rebel bombardment has killed at least 21 civilians since Friday, including two children, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

"Fighting continues on the western outskirts of Aleppo, where rebels have been making advances," the British-based monitor, which has a network of sources on the ground, said Saturday.

More than 1,500 rebels from the provinces of Aleppo and Idlib to the west are attacking regime-controlled districts of the city along a front stretching for 15 kilometres (nine miles), it said.

Pro-government forces launched a counter-attack on Saturday, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said, though it was unclear if they had retaken territory.

Air strikes targeted the rebel district of Salaheddin overnight but abated by Saturday morning, according to a correspondent in east Aleppo.

The Observatory reported Russian raids hit Aleppo's western front lines, but said a halt to Moscow's aerial bombing of the city itself was holding.

Fierce fighting erupted on Friday after a coalition of rebel, Islamist, and jihadist groups announced a long-awaited push to break the regime siege of Aleppo.

The violence killed at least 18 regime forces and allied fighters on Friday, according to Observatory, which was unable to provide a toll for the rebels.

A correspondent who visited Dahiyet al-Assad, where rebels seized ground on Friday, saw deserted streets and extensive damage to buildings as air strikes and artillery fire hit the area.

Syria's second city, Aleppo has been devastated by some of the heaviest fighting of the five-year civil war that began with anti-government protests and has since killed more than 300,000 people.

Much of the once-bustling economic hub has been reduced to rubble by air and artillery bombardment, including barrel bombs -- crude unguided explosive devices that cause indiscriminate damage.

Last week, Russia implemented a three-day "humanitarian truce" intended to allow civilians and surrendering rebels to leave the east.

But few did so, and a UN plan to evacuate the wounded failed because security could not be guaranteed.

Russia, whose intervention in September 2015 with air strikes in support of President Bashar al-Assad's forces was seen as a game-changer, says it has not bombed Aleppo since October 18.

The Russian military said Friday it had asked President Vladimir Putin for authorisation to resume the raids.

But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin "considers it inappropriate at the current moment," adding the president thought it necessary to "continue the humanitarian pause" in the war-ravaged city.

The United States on Friday accused the regime of using starvation as a weapon of war -- a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.

Rejecting Kremlin claims that attacks on Aleppo have stopped, a US official told AFP that "the regime has rejected UN requests to deliver aid to eastern Aleppo -- using starvation as a weapon of war".

Rebels seized the east of the city in July 2012 and government forces have been battling to recapture it ever since, with the front line running through the heart of the city.

Aleppo lies at the crossroads of key transport routes, making it a strategic prize for both sides.

The city's fate will have major implications for the bargaining power of both the regime and the opposition if UN-brokered peace negotiations ever resume.