Syria rebels launch major assault in long-divided Aleppo
BEIRUT - Opposition fighters launched a major assault on government-held districts of Syria's long-divided Aleppo on Monday, after the regime severed their only remaining supply route into the battleground city.
Once Syria's economic powerhouse, Aleppo has been ravaged by the war that began with anti-government protests in 2011 and has killed more than 280,000 people.
Several rounds of UN-brokered talks to end the conflict have failed, but the UN's special envoy said Monday that a "crucial moment" had been reached in an attempt to secure a political settlement.
In Rome to meet Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni, Staffan de Mistura added that "between now and September we have a window" to reach a political transition and defeat jihadists.
Despite the diplomatic flurry, fighting has intensified in the northern city of Aleppo, divided between government forces in the west and rebels in the east since mid-2012.
Rebel groups launched an offensive at dawn on Monday to reopen the Castello Road, their last lifeline into the city, a correspondent said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 19 regime forces were killed Monday when rebels blew up a tunnel in the Old City.
Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said "the opposition has not advanced because of the heavy aerial bombardment the regime is carrying out on the areas where fighting is underway."
Air raids on the rebel-held parts of Aleppo killed 13 civilians Monday, the Observatory said, most of them in the Bab al-Maqam neighbourhood near the front line.
A journalist saw rescue workers help a stocky, shirtless man out of the rubble in Bab al-Maqam, his face and thick beard caked in dust.
The unidentified man entered a field hospital and embraced the limp bodies of two young boys. "He was martyred. He's gone," he said crying over the body of one them.
Rebels fired a barrage of at least 300 shells into western Aleppo, killing nine civilians, the Observatory said.
Ahmed, a resident of government-controlled western area of the city, said his home in the Syriaq quarter was completely destroyed.
"The shells have rained down on the western neighbourhoods since 4:30 am," he said.
Residents lifted debris in the Syriaq quarter and helped neighbours gather their belongings so they could leave in search of shelter elsewhere.
Mahmud Abu Malak, a spokesman for the Nureddin al-Zanki rebel group, described fierce fighting.
"All kinds of heavy artillery and machineguns are being used in the assault, which is intended to ease the pressure on the Mallah and Handarat fronts," he said, referring to areas near the rebel supply route into Aleppo.
The Castello Road route was effectively severed on Thursday when government forces seized a hilltop within firing range.
The advance leaves the opposition-held east of the city cut off, and raises the prospect of total siege.
On Sunday, at least 29 opposition fighters were killed when rebels launched a fruitless assault to push government forces back from the road and reopen the route.
The violence comes despite a nationwide truce declared by the government last Wednesday, to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.
The ceasefire has produced little respite in fighting, but was extended for another 72 hours on Saturday.
In nearby Idlib province, 17 people including two children were killed in air strikes, the Observatory said.
The monitor said it was unclear if the strikes were carried out by regime or Russian war planes.
The severing of the Castello Road has already created shortages of food and fuel in the east of Aleppo, with local market stalls sparsely stocked.
"There are very few vegetables today because the Castello Road is closed," said Abu Mohamed, a vendor in the Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood.
"This eggplant and zucchini is grown here inside Aleppo," he said, pointing to his meagre stock.
"If we hadn't planted eggplant and zucchini inside the city, we wouldn't have had any vegetables at all."
Residents also described searching in vain for fuel, whether for vehicles or home use.
The UN says nearly 600,000 Syrians live in besieged areas, most surrounded by government forces, although rebels also use the method.