Thousands flee regime advance in Aleppo
ALEPPO: Thousands of civilians have fled rebel-held east Aleppo after government forces, determined to retake all of Syria’s second city, seized its largest rebelcontrolled district and advanced into two other areas. The capture on Saturday of Masaken Hanano - which had been the biggest rebel-held district of Aleppo was a major breakthrough in a 13-day regime offensive to retake the entire city. Yesterday, regime forces also took control of two neighboring areas, Jabal Badra and Baadeen, the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights said.
“The army’s rapid advance is due to its strategy of attacking east Aleppo on several fronts, weakening the rebels,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said. The regime gains came as its aircraft pounded rebel positions and amid heavy clashes between the opposition and forces loyal to President Bashar AlAssad. Masaken Hanano was the first district the rebels took in the summer of 2012 in a move that divided the city into a rebel-held east and a regimecontrolled west.
Around 250,000 civilians trapped under government siege for months in the east have faced serious food and fuel shortages. The Syrian Observatory said nearly 1,700 civilians had fled over the past 24 hours to government-held parts of western Aleppo and another 2,500 to the Kurdish-controlled northern district of Sheikh Maksoud. “It is the first exodus of this kind from east Aleppo since 2012,” Abdel Rahman said.
Syrian state television broadcast images of a crowd of civilians including women and children gathered around green buses that it said had come to pick them up in Masaken Hanano. One woman was shown pushing a stroller and many others carried plastic bags on their heads while bombardment could be heard in the distance. Yasser Al-Youssef, from the rebel group Nureddin Al-Zinki, said that opposition fighters were consolidating their positions in Sakhur. “We are strengthening our positions to defend the city and residents, but the aircraft are destroying everything methodically, area by area,” he said, referring to a regime campaign of air strikes on the city.
Sakhur lies on a stretch of just 1.5 km between west Aleppo and Masaken Hanano, now both controlled by the regime. If the regime did manage to take control of Sakhur, east Aleppo would be split in two from north to south, dealing a further blow to the armed opposition. Pro-government media reported that government forces continued their advance yesterday.
The latest regime push comes after days of intense bombardment on the east, which has been pounded with air strikes, shells and barrel bombs. On Saturday, dozens of families fled Sakhur and Haidariya as regime raids and artillery fire killed at least 18 civilians in several districts, the Britain-based Observatory said. That took to 219 the overall number of civilians killed, including 27 children, since the government launched its latest assault on east Aleppo on November 15. Rebel forces also intensified rocket attacks on western districts overnight, killing at least four civilians and wounding dozens, the Observatory said. Such attacks have killed a total of 27 civilians since the offensive began, among them 11 children. 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 not yet agreed. Guarantees are also needed from regime ally Russia.
Once a commercial and industrial hub, Aleppo has seen some of the worst fighting in Syria’s five-and-a-half-year war. The conflict broke out in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests and has since evolved into a complex war involving different factions and foreign powers. Yesterday, the Turkish army said that 22 pro-Ankara Syrian rebels were hit by a chemical gas attack from Islamic State group jihadists in northern Syria.
The Turkish army is backing the Syrian fighters in an unprecedented cross-border operation it says is targeting both IS and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which it considers to be a “terrorist” group. The YPG is a key component of a US-backed ArabKurdish alliance that is fighting to oust IS from its de facto Syria capital of Raqqa, after the jihadist group overran large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014. Syria’s war has killed more than 300,000 people and displaced more than half the population. — AFP
ALEPPO: Syrian displaced families arrive at a makeshift camp yesterday in the government-held district of Jibreen. — AFP