BEIRUT • Syria's divided city of Aleppo has plunged back into the kind of all-out war not seen in months, witnesses have said, as they reeled from government air strikes that blasted a hospital in the insurgent-held side and from retaliatory mortar assaults by rebels on the government-held side.
More than 200 civilians have been killed in Aleppo over the past week. In the latest violence, three people were killed and 25 wounded when rebel-fired mortars hit a mosque in the government-held part of Aleppo as people were leaving Friday prayers. Meanwhile, a clinic was hit by an air strike in a rebel-held district yesterday, killing two doctors.
The deadly destruction in Aleppo punctuated a drastic escalation in fighting over the past week that has shattered a partial truce in Syria's more-than-five-year war.
The escalation also threatened to derail renewed attempts at peace talks in Geneva by the United Nations and could disrupt or stop humanitarian aid to besieged parts of the country, affecting millions of people, relief officials said.
In what would probably be the death knell for the tattered truce, the Syrian army is poised to launch an offensive to retake the whole of Aleppo and the surrounding province.
IN THE LINE OF FIRE
Wherever you are, you hear explosions of mortars, shelling and planes flying over. Everyone here fears for their lives and nobody knows what is coming next.
'' MR VALTER GROS, who heads the ICRC's Aleppo office.
Leading pro-government daily Al-Watan said it would begin in the next few days. "Now is the time to launch the battle for the complete liberation of Aleppo," the paper said, adding that it "will not take long to begin, nor to finish".
US general overestimated drop in foreign fighters joining ISIS
WASHINGTON • The United States military has retreated from a top general's claim this week that the number of foreign fighters joining the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group has plummeted by as much as 90 per cent.
Air Force Major-General Peter Gersten, deputy commander for operations and intelligence in the US-led coalition battling ISIS, told reporters on Tuesday that the number of foreign fighters joining the group had fallen to 200 a month from between 1,500 and 2,000.
US Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the coalition, told Reuters that the official estimate is higher than the one Maj-Gen Gersten offered, although he did not provide a precise figure.
"We believe the foreign fighter flow was 2,000 at one point and is now down to a quarter or less of that," Col Warren said on Thursday. That would equal roughly 500 fighters a month, or a drop of about 75 per cent from the peak.
He said: "The key is the cumulative effect over time of the damage we have done to them on the battlefield combined with reduced (foreign fighter) flow, so they have to increasingly use younger fighters, conscripts and security/governance personnel to field their force."
It was unclear why Maj-Gen Gersten used a figure of 200.
US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, had questioned his remarks. There are multiple signs that the tide of foreign fighters has abated but not that dramatically, they said.
The US and its allies have long tried to track the flow of foreign fighters - which a top Obama aide last week said totalled 40,000 over the course of the war - in part because of worries that some could return to conduct attacks in their home countries.
At the same time, a Syrian military statement issued yesterday said a "regime of calm" would be enforced in parts of Syria's Latakia and Damascus regions from 1am today, in order to "secure the implementation of the agreed cessation of hostilities".
The statement from the Syrian Army General Command did not mention the city of Aleppo and did not explain what military or non-military action a "regime of calm" would involve.
It would last for 24 hours in the Eastern Ghouta region east of Damascus and in Damascus, and for 72 hours in parts of the northern Latakia countryside.
Once Syria's commercial centre, Aleppo has been an intermittent combat zone for much of the war, split into insurgent and government halves. It had enjoyed somewhat of a respite because of the partial ceasefire - until now.
The scream of jet fighters and thud of shelling could be heard everywhere from Wednesday night into Thursday, residents and aid workers said. Panic and anguish were visible on both sides. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called on all parties to stop indiscriminate attacks and to avoid harming civilians, or Aleppo would face what it called a new humanitarian disaster.
There was no indication the government forces of President Bashar al-Assad and their Russian allies were any closer to retaking the city. But it had become apparent in recent days that the truce was unravelling, with more air strikes by the government and more shelling by rebels.
The location of the destroyed Al-Quds hospital, on the rebels' side, was well known, and the hospital was assisted by the international charity Doctors Without Borders. At least 27, including three children and six staff members, were reportedly killed in the strike on the hospital, which turned into a smoking pile of rubble on Wednesday night.
Much of the hospital building had collapsed, and in videos and photographs after the attack, bodies could be seen pinned under rubble. The US State Department said on Thursday that it appeared that Syria's government was solely responsible for the "reprehensible" strike on the hospital.
Groups such as Physicians for Human Rights have tracked what they call a pattern of deliberate targeting of health services by government forces. Two hospitals in the town of Maarat al-Noaman to the south-west of Aleppo were hit on the same day earlier this year.
NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE