Syrian military captures part of rebel-held spot

Smoke rising from a damaged building after a strike on the rebel-held al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria, on Saturday.
Smoke rising from a damaged building after a strike on the rebel-held al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria, on Saturday.PHOTO: REUTERS

Government forces take control of vital district in east Aleppo after launching ground-and-air assault

BEIRUT • The Syrian army said it has taken control of an important district in rebel-held eastern Aleppo after fierce fighting, with rebels blaming intense air strikes and lack of hospitals for their collapsing frontline.

Government forces advanced with a ground-and-air assault on the edge of the besieged eastern half of the city, a move the rebels say is designed to split their most important urban stronghold in two.

Aleppo, which was Syria's biggest city before the start of a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, is divided between the government-held west and rebel-held east, where United Nations officials say at least 250,000 people are under siege.

Capturing all of Aleppo would be a major victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after 6½ years of fighting.

The army said in a statement on Saturday that it had, alongside its allies, taken full control over the Masaken Hanano housing district, which is on the north-east frontline of the eastern sector.

"Engineering teams are removing mines and improvised explosive devices planted by terrorists in the squares and streets," the statement said. The Syrian government calls all forces fighting against it terrorists.

An official in an Aleppo rebel group said a map circulated by pro-government media showing government forces in control of the Hanano area was largely accurate.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring organisation based in Britain, said the army had established control over Hanano, which was the first part of Aleppo taken over by armed opposition groups in 2012.

It said yesterday that more than 400 civilians had fled rebel-held districts of eastern Aleppo overnight to the Hanano district and were taken to regime-controlled areas.

A renewed air assault on residential and frontline parts of east Aleppo began last Tuesday after a weeks-long pause in air strikes and shelling there.

"The revolutionaries are fighting fiercely but the volume of bombardments and the intensity of the battles, the dead and the wounded, and the lack of hospitals, are all playing a role in the collapse of these frontlines," said an official from Jabha Shamiya, one of the biggest groups fighting against Mr Assad in northern Syria. Some of its members are fighting in Hanano.

He condemned the "international silence" and said the government and its allies were trying to exploit the period before the next United States administration took over.

"The Iranians, Russians and regime know there is a vacuum and they are trying to exploit it using all means," he said.

A Syrian state TV reporter broadcast live from a part of Hanano on Saturday as government forces sought to establish full control over the area. Gunshots could be heard. Behind him, damaged buildings and rising smoke could be seen.

Rebels say much of Hanano has been empty of residents for some months.

Syrian state media said the army had secured the safe passage of at least 150 people out of Hanano, and showed pictures of people it said were evacuated residents in a reception centre.

In the 12 days since the renewed bombardment on east Aleppo, at least 201 civilians, including 27 children, have died in the besieged sector, the Observatory said. There were 134 rebel fighter deaths.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2016, with the headline 'Syrian military captures part of rebel-held spot'. Print Edition | Subscribe