Government forces capture largest rebel-held district of Aleppo as rebels admit to a collapsing frontline.
Aleppo, Syria: Syrian state media said government forces Saturday captured the largest rebel-held district of Aleppo, in what would be a major breakthrough in its offensive to retake the entire second city.
Masaken Hanano was the first district the rebels took in the summer of 2012 in a move that divided Aleppo into an eastern area held by the insurgents and a western district controlled by government forces.
Since then, more than 250,000 civilians have been trapped under government siege for months in the rebel-held east, with dwindling food and fuel supplies.
The capture of Masaken Hanano in northeastern Aleppo is part of a major government offensive now in its 12th day that could isolate that part of the city from rebel-held areas in the south.
Since November 15, regime bombardment of eastern Aleppo has killed 212 civilians, including 27 children, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Regime forces had been advancing inside Masaken Hanano for several days, and on Friday state television said they were progressing “from three axes”.
On Saturday, the state broadcaster and the official SANA news agency said President Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces, backed by their allies, had taken “full control” of the district.
“The armed forces retook full control of Masaken Hanano after having put an end to the presence of terrorists there,” the state broadcaster said, referring to the rebels.
SANA said government forces also recaptured the area around the district and “army engineers are clearing it of bombs and explosives planted by the terrorists in the streets and squares”.
But Yasser al-Youssef, from the rebel group Nureddin al-Zinki, said fighting was still under way on the southern edges of Masaken Hanano, which he called a district of “strategic importance”.
Youssef warned that if regime forces can advance to the adjacent neighbourhood of Sakhur, then eastern Aleppo will be split in two.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said that 80 percent of Masaken Hanano was under the control of government forces who have the rest in their line of fire.
– Families flee –
“They are just hundreds of metres (yards) away from isolating the northern districts of east Aleppo from the southern ones,” he said.
The latest regime push comes after days of intense bombardment on the rebel-held east, which was pounded with air strikes, shells and barrel bombs.
The escalation has terrified residents, and several families have fled to areas in southeastern Aleppo which have been relatively calm.
On Saturday, an AFP correspondent in one of those districts saw four families, without luggage, arrive on foot seeking shelter.
“In Hanano, for the past three days, they haven’t been able to set foot outside because of the intense bombardment,” said Abu Fadel, who helped them find lodgings.
“They left on foot because they had no other means of transport. At first they were afraid but when they saw many people around and that there was no bombardment they were reassured,” he said.
Damascus says east Aleppo residents and surrendering fighters are free to leave, but accuses the rebels of using civilians as “human shields”.
On Saturday, dozens of families fled from the Sakhur and Al-Haidariya districts adjacent to Masaken Hanano and headed further south, the Observatory said.
They took flight as regime forces pounded eastern Aleppo with air raids, including Sakhur, killing at least 11 civilians, it said.
The United Nations has a plan to deliver aid to Aleppo and evacuate the sick and wounded, which rebel factions have approved but which Damascus has yet to agree. Guarantees are also needed from regime ally Russia.
Also on Saturday, a string of explosions rocked a munitions storage site in northeastern Syria used by the US-led coalition battling the Islamic State group, the Observatory and a local official said. Contacted by AFP, the coalition said there had been “no reports of explosions” at the site.
From Al Jazeera
Government forces advanced with a ground and air assault on the edge of the besieged eastern half of the city into the Hanano housing area, a move designed to split the rebel-held east 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 UN 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 five and a half years of fighting.
The army said in a statement it had, alongside its allies, taken full control over the Hanano housing district, which is on the northeast 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 UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the army had established control over Hanano, which was the first part of Aleppo taken over by armed opposition groups in 2012.
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.
“Every day there are a lot of attacks, helicopters dropping barrelbombs and war planes dropping bunker-buster bombs and cluster munitions,” Modar Shekho, an emergency nurse in al-Shaar neighbourhood, told Al Jazeera.
An official from Jabha Shamiya, one of the biggest groups fighting against Assad in northern Syria, told Reuters news agency: “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.”
Members of Jabha Shamiya have taken part in the fighting in Hanano.
He condemned the “international silence” and said the government and its allies were trying to exploit the period before the next US 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.
“We are in touch with the friendly states but unfortunately Aleppo is being left to be slaughtered.”
Yasser al-Yousef, from the political office of the Nour al-Din al-Zinki rebel group, said rebel fighters had fought fiercely for more than 48 hours to defend Hanano and the southern front of east Aleppo from heavy government bombardment.
A Syrian state television 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 and 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.
The monitor also documented 19 civilian deaths, including 11 children, and dozens of injuries as a result of rebel shelling of government-held west Aleppo.
Rebel shelling into the Sheikh Maqsoud district, which is under the control of the Kurdish YPG militia, has killed three people, it said.
Syrian state news agency SANA said three people died and 15 were injured on Saturday when rebels fired rockets into government-held west Aleppo.
Source: Al Jazeera News and Agencies
Tags: Al-Haidariya, Aleppo, Bashar al-Assad, government forces, Hanano, Kurdish YPG militia, Masaken Hanano, rebel-held district of Aleppo, Sakhur, Sheikh Maqsoud district, Syria, Syrian government forces, US-led coalition