Syrian rebel forces lose key positions in north-east Aleppo

Assad, allies aim to seize all Aleppo before Trump takes power.

Thousands of residents flee as Assad's army, allies retake territory in attack that threatens to crush opposition

BEIRUT • The Syrian army and its allies announced the capture of a swathe of eastern Aleppo from rebels yesterday in an accelerating attack that threatens to crush the opposition in its most important urban stronghold.

Rebels denied the army had taken the strategically vital Sakhur area which - if it fell - would mean rebel-held territory in the eastern part of the city was split in two.

But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the government had taken Sakhur, and rebels had lost control of more than a third of eastern Aleppo in recent days.

The Observatory said the Haidariya and Sheikh Khodr districts also fell, while Kurdish fighters took the Sheikh Fares neighbourhood from rebels.

Thousands of residents were reported to have fled. A rebel fighter reached by Reuters said there was "extreme, extreme, extreme pressure" on the insurgents there.

Capturing eastern Aleppo would be the biggest victory for President Bashar al-Assad since the start of the uprising against him in 2011, giving him control of the whole city.

For Mr Assad, taking back Aleppo would shore up his control over the main urban centres of western Syria where he and his allies have focused their firepower even as much of the rest of the country has slipped from their grip.

It would also be seen as a victory for his allies, Russia and Iran, which have outmanoeuvred the West and Mr Assad's regional enemies through direct military intervention.

Citing a military source, Syrian state TV said the army and its allies had seized the entire Sakhur area and were working to clear it of mines. Backed by allied militiamen, the army has been advancing into eastern Aleppo from the north-east in recent days, and made significant gains over the weekend.

A military news service run by Hizbollah declared the northern portion of eastern Aleppo was now under government control. Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman called it the biggest defeat for the opposition in Aleppo since 2012.

On Sunday night, the Observatory said nearly 10,000 civilians had fled the east, with around 6,000 moving to the Kurdish-held Sheikh Maksoud neighbourhood and the remaining 4,000 to government- held west Aleppo.

State television showed footage of families disembarking from the green coaches regularly used to transport civilians and surrendering rebels from territory retaken by the government.

Kurdish officials published a video they said showed civilians crossing a field and arriving in Sheikh Maksoud, where local forces helped people lift baggage over a makeshift berm as they arrived.

Civilians were also fleeing south to the remaining districts held by the rebels, arriving with little more than the clothes they were wearing, an Agence France-Presse correspondent said.

He said dozens of families had arrived in the south of the city overnight, and they were being housed in some of the many empty buildings left behind by earlier waves of residents fleeing the city.

While some of the rebels in Aleppo have received support from countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United States during the war, they say their foreign backers have failed them as Mr Assad and his allies unleashed enormous firepower.

"There is great, great pressure on the fighters in Aleppo and there is very ferocious shelling and heavy attrition of people and ammunition," said the rebel fighter.

"God willing the fighters will hold on and be able to resist the regime."

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 29, 2016, with the headline 'Syrian rebel forces lose key positions in north-east Aleppo'. Print Edition | Subscribe