Syr­ian gov­ern­ment takes strate­gic Aleppo ground

Baltimore Sun - - WORLD - By Bassem Mroue

BEIRUT — Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces and their al­lies on Mon­day cap­tured strate­gic high ground in em­bat­tled Aleppo as Rus­sia — a key ally of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad — said it was not plan­ning more “hu­man­i­tar­ian pauses” in the fight­ing in the city’s east­ern, rebel-held dis­tricts.

The fight­ing in Aleppo came as airstrikes hit towns in the north­west­ern prov­ince of Idlib, killing at least 13 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to the Bri­tain-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights and the Lo­cal Co­or­di­na­tion Com­mit­tees. They said the peo­ple killed were in the towns of Kfar Takharim and Khan Sheikhoun, where a mar­ket was hit.

Fight­ing re­sumed in Aleppo over the week­end, fol­low­ing a days­long lull an­nounced by Mos­cow that was meant to al­low rebels and civil­ians to leave the east­ern dis­tricts. The rebels re­jected the Rus­sian of­fer, and none of the civil­ians left.

Gov­ern­ment troops launched a fresh of­fen­sive and on Mon­day took the hill­top of Bazo on the south­ern edge of Aleppo, near mil­i­tary bases, and shelled the rebel neigh­bor­hoods, ac­cord­ing to op­po­si­tion ac­tivists.

The Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights said Bazo was taken amid heavy bom­bard­ment. Both the Ob­ser­va­tory and the Aleppo Me­dia Cen­ter, an ac­tivist col­lec­tive, re­ported gov­ern­ment shelling in east­ern parts of the city.

A video re­leased by the Syr­ian army showed tanks and can­nons pound­ing rebel po­si­tions in the area. The state SANA news agency, mean­while, said the rebels shelled gov­ern­ment-held neigh­bor­hoods in western Aleppo, killing one per­son Rebel fight­ers fire to­ward Is­lamic State po­si­tions Mon­day in the north­ern Syr­ian vil­lage of Ber­aan, north of Aleppo. and wound­ing seven.

A pro-op­po­si­tion me­dia out­let cir­cu­lated footage of a pow­er­ful and hard-line Is­lamist rebel coali­tion known as Jaish al-Fatah an­nounc­ing that the campaign to break the gov­ern­ment’s siege of the city’s east would be­gin “within hours.”

Syr­ian troops have be­sieged rebel-held parts of Aleppo for weeks, sub­ject­ing the dis­tricts to some of the worst air raids since a cease-fire bro­kered by the United States and Rus­sia col­lapsed on Sept. 19. Op­po­si­tion ac­tivists say more than 600 peo­ple have been killed in Aleppo and neigh­bor­ing vil­lages since then.

Jaish al-Fatah Cmdr. Ali Abu Odai al-Aloush told the Qa­sioun news agency that “zero hour has drawn near” and that his mil­i­tants had be­gun mov­ing to­ward Aleppo. It was un­clear when the in­ter­view was recorded.

A spokesman for the Nour el-Din al-Zinki rebel fac­tion in Aleppo said an op­er­a­tion to break the gov­ern­ment’s siege of the re­bel­held east­ern dis­tricts of Aleppo was “com­ing.”

The spokesman, Yasser al-Yousef, said the rebels would not in­ten­tion­ally tar­get civil­ians in Aleppo’s gov­ern­ment-held dis­tricts but warned of col­lat­eral dam­age from the an­tic­i­pated op­er­a­tions.

In Mos­cow, Rus­sia’s Deputy For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Ryabkov said Rus­sia wasn’t plan­ning an­other hu­man­i­tar­ian pause in Aleppo any­time soon.

“In or­der to re­sume it, our op­po­nents need to make sure the anti-gov­ern­ment groups be­have prop­erly,” he said in com­ments car­ried by Rus­sian news agen­cies, blam­ing the rebels for the fact that med­i­cal evac­u­a­tions from east­ern Aleppo, planned dur­ing the pause, were scrapped at the last mo­ment.

“What needed to hap­pen didn’t hap­pen, that’s why re­sum­ing a hu­man­i­tar­ian pause is not on the agenda,” Ryabkov said. He also said that Mos­cow doesn’t ex­pect any new round of Syria peace talks in the Swiss city of Lau­sanne un­til after the U.S. elec­tions.

French For­eign Min­is­ter Jean-Marc Ayrault called for an end to the “mas­sive bomb­ing raids” by Rus­sia and Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces in Aleppo to al­low for the de­liv­ery of aid to be­lea­guered pop­u­la­tions and the re­sump­tion of peace ef­forts in Syria.

Dur­ing a Mon­day news con­fer­ence with his Turk­ish coun­ter­part in Ankara, Ayrault said: “It’s the only way that hu­man­i­tar­ian aid can reach pop­u­la­tions that re­ally need it; it’s the only (way) that the ne­go­ti­a­tions can re­sume.”

NAZEER AL-KHATIB/GETTY-AFP

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