Thursday 22 February 2018

Scores of civilians killed amid Syrian rebel surge in Aleppo

The Syrian army is battling rebels in Aleppo
The Syrian army is battling rebels in Aleppo

At least 74 civilians, including 25 children, have died after an offensive by Syrian insurgents targeted at the government-held part of the northern city of Aleppo, monitors have reported.

The insurgents launched the assault eight days ago, hoping to break a months-long government siege on the rebel-held eastern part of the city, which has been subjected to months of devastating Syrian and Russian air strikes.

The insurgents have seized a district on Aleppo's edge and a nearby village.

While the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed 74 people had died, the Syrian military claimed that the first three days of the rebel offensive killed more than 80 people.

Rights groups and the UN have sharply criticised the rebels over the shelling of western Aleppo districts, which has killed a number of civilians.

Such criticism had mainly been focused on the government and its allies, accusing them of indiscriminate shelling and air strikes on rebel-held areas.

Moscow declared a halt to air strikes on eastern Aleppo on October 18, but Syrian and Russian warplanes have continued to strike around the city's edges and in the surrounding province.

The strikes, which have hit a school and several medical facilities, have killed more than 400 civilians in less than a month and wounded more than 2,000 people.

Monitors recorded three civilian deaths in rebel-held Aleppo districts in the past week.

On Friday, a renewed 10-hour Russian offer of a moratorium on air strikes expired. None of the estimated 275,000 residents of eastern Aleppo departed during the unilateral ceasefire, after being urged to leave by Russia and the Syrian government.

Russian officials have not outlined what would happen when the deadline expired. But the arrival of a Russian aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, into the Mediterranean and its movement towards the Syrian coast suggests Moscow may intend to escalate its operations.

The chairman of the Russian parliament's defence committee, Vladimir Shamanov, said this week that the carrier's arrival in Syria is part of a rotation schedule and also "a show of the flag".

On Saturday, Syria's pro-government Sama TV said another Russian ship, the frigate Admiral Grigorovich, has arrived in the Mediterranean to "reinforce the other military ships already present at the Syrian coast".

Admiral Grigorovich is one of the most advanced classes of frigates in the Russian navy and can fire cruise missiles. There was no immediate word from the Russian defence ministry.

By late afternoon on Saturday, there were no reports of air strikes in Aleppo, but Syrian activists reported air raids in the surrounding province.

Footage from the activist-run Thiqa News Agency appeared to show missiles targeting the town of Darat Izza in north-western Aleppo province. A team of first responders known as the Syrian Civil Defence, or White Helmets, said at least three people were killed in the air strikes and 15 others were wounded.

There has been an intense aerial bombing campaign in the western Aleppo countryside and nearby Idlib province in recent days. Rebels said it appeared to be an attempt to sever their supply lines.

An insurgent alliance known as the Army of Conquest, which includes the al-Qaida-linked Fatah al-Sham Front, has led the attack on western Aleppo.

It is the second time insurgents have tried to break the siege imposed on the territory since July. An earlier offensive that breached the siege in August for a few weeks was repelled.

Abu Saeed al-Halabi, a Dutch member of Fatah al-Sham based in Aleppo, said Russia has intensified its air strikes during the insurgent-led offensive on Aleppo's western countryside, "the proposed end destination" for the potential evacuees from eastern Aleppo.

He said that the aerial campaign has not curtailed the rebel offensive.

Also on Saturday, a Lebanese soccer team paid condolences to Qassim Shamkha, a 20-year old former player, who was killed fighting alongside Hezbollah in Syria.

The Lebanese Shia group has sent thousands of fighters to aid the Syrian government in Aleppo and other parts of the country. Other Iraqi Shia militias and Iranian fighters also fight on the side of the Syrian government.

At least 21 Hezbollah fighters are reported to have been killed in the rebel offensive against western Aleppo.

A total of 93 pro-government fighters have been killed since the offensive began, compared to at least 86 insurgents killed in the same period.


Press Association

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