Monday 22 January 2018

Assad forces storm rebels' 'stronghold'

An injured boy and a man in a rebel-held area of Aleppo, Syria Photo: Reuters/Abdalrhman Ismail
An injured boy and a man in a rebel-held area of Aleppo, Syria Photo: Reuters/Abdalrhman Ismail

Sarah Elizabeth Williams

Syrian regime forces have made a fast-moving advance in opposition-held areas of eastern Aleppo, storming ahead in a new phase of the Russian-backed offensive that began last Tuesday.

Government forces, backed by Iranian and Russian troops and fighters from Lebanon's Hezbollah, have penetrated the eastern part of the Masakan Hanano neighbourhood, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.

This neighbourhood is a keystone for eastern Aleppo: the first to fall to rebels in 2012, its location makes it a gateway for control of the eastern part of the city.

Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman called it "the most important advance inside the eastern neighbourhoods that the regime has made so far".

"If they take control of Masakan Hanano, the regime will have line of fire control over several rebel-held neighbourhoods and will be able to cut off the northern parts of rebel-held Aleppo from the rest of the opposition-held districts," he said.

Syria's 'Al-Watan' daily, which is close to the government, described Masakan Hanano as the "biggest and most important stronghold of the gunmen" in Aleppo.

The shift on the ground comes after more than 100 civilians were killed in east Aleppo over the first six days of this offensive, according to statistics gathered by the Observatory.

On Sunday, children on both sides of Aleppo, many of whom have never known peace, paid the highest price for an adult war. At least seven were killed by rebel rocket fire that hit a school in government-held west Aleppo, said state media.

In the east, airstrikes and barrel bombs devastated homes and some of the area's few functioning hospitals, killing at least seven children there, according to the Observatory.

The reinvigoration of the battle for Aleppo comes after a period of relative respite marked by signs of impending escalation by Moscow. In the past weeks, Russian battleships including the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier and a constant stream of heavily-laden supply ships have made their way to the Syrian coast.

Yesterday's ground forces push into eastern Aleppo came a day after Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem rejected UN envoy Staffan de Mistura's suggestion to allow an autonomous rebel administration in east Aleppo, saying this would "reward terrorists".

Mr de Mistura warned that time was "running out" for eastern Aleppo, adding that there was concern "instead of a humanitarian or a political initiative" there would be "an acceleration of military activities" in the city and elsewhere.

Despite vocal concern from senior UN officials and world leaders including US President Barack Obama, that acceleration began in earnest yesterday.

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