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Hospitals hit, schools closed as Syria regime pounds Aleppo

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The wreackage of vehicles are seen outside a civil defence centre in Aleppo's rebel-held neighbourhood of Bab al-Nayrab on November 19, 2016, following recent government air strikes. Tens of thousands of civilians besieged in rebel-held east Aleppo reel under a fifth straight day of bombardment by government forces determined to take control of the whole of Syria's second city. KARAM AL-MASRI / AFP

The wreackage of vehicles are seen outside a civil defence centre in Aleppo’s rebel-held neighbourhood of Bab al-Nayrab on November 19, 2016, following recent government air strikes. Tens of thousands of civilians besieged in rebel-held east Aleppo reel under a fifth straight day of bombardment by government forces determined to take control of the whole of Syria’s second city.<br />KARAM AL-MASRI / AFP

Intense government air strikes and artillery fire on Saturday shook the rebel-held side of Aleppo city, where multiple hospitals have been hit and schools forced to close.

The ferocious bombardment saw rockets, mortar shells and barrel bombs pound residential neighbourhoods, shaking buildings and terrifying residents, an AFP correspondent in east Aleppo said.

“People went to sleep to the sound of bombardment and awoke to the sound of bombardment,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor of the war.

Syrian government troops unleashed their assault on the rebel side of the city on Tuesday, as they once again press to recapture the opposition-held districts of divided Aleppo.

Once the country’s economic powerhouse, Aleppo has been ravaged by the war that began in March 2011 with anti-government protests and has since left more than 300,000 people dead.

The city has been divided between government control in the west and rebel control in the east since mid-2012.

More than 250,000 people remain in the opposition-held part of the city, which has been besieged by the regime since July.

The intensity of the bombardment has forced residents to stay indoors, leaving streets all-but-deserted.

“People don’t dare to leave their homes,” Abdel Rahman said.

– Rescue centre destroyed –

Schools in east Aleppo, many of which already operate from basements because of government attacks, announced in a statement they would close Saturday and Sunday “for the safety of students and teachers, after the barbarous aerial strikes.”

The bombardment has badly affected rescue and medical facilities in the east, which have already routinely been targeted in government attacks.

On Friday, regime shelling of the Maadi neighbourhood partially destroyed one of the last hospitals serving residents in the east, forcing it to shut.

Two patients were killed and medical staff were injured in the attack, a medical source told AFP.

The last pediatric hospital in the east was also forced to close after being damaged in a barrel bomb attack earlier in the week, with medical staff evacuating babies from incubators and transferring them to a new location.

And a centre belonging to the White Helmet rescue group in the Bab al-Nayrab district was totally destroyed in an air strike on Friday, an AFP correspondent said.

He reported the building was wiped out in the attack, and the group’s vehicles were also completely destroyed.

The White Helmets have struggled to keep up with calls for help since the renewed bombardment began, at times unable to leave their centres because of the intensity of the government fire.

According to the Observatory, at least 71 civilians have been killed since the Syrian government renewed its bombardment of the east on Tuesday.

The attack ended a period of relative respite for east Aleppo, after regime ally Russia halted its strikes and organised a series of brief truces intended to convince residents and surrendering rebels to leave.

– Aleppo residents besieged –

In Berlin, US President Barack Obama and European leaders called Friday for an immediate halt to the attacks on east Aleppo, where food supplies are dwindling after four months of regime siege.

Syria expert Thomas Pierret said regime forces “intended to combine air strikes with famine resulting from the siege to get rebels to surrender”.

“Aleppo is now completely besieged and its residents are starting to die of hunger,” he said.

For the moment, the renewed assault on Aleppo has been led by government forces, with ally Russia concentrating its firepower on the neighbouring province of Idlib.

Analysts suggested Damascus and Moscow were hoping to achieve key military gains before US president-elect Donald Trump takes office.

“Russia, Damascus and Tehran want to retake east Aleppo quickly. The United States is paralysed. Trump needs to be presented with a fait accompli in January,” said Fabrice Balance, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Elsewhere, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces were battling to dislodge the Islamic State group from the village of Tal Saman.

The village is just 25 kilometres from IS’s de facto Syrian capital of Raqa, which the SDF began an operation to recapture earlier this month.

The SDF is being supported by the US-led coalition fighting IS, which is carrying out air strikes, but has also stepped up deliveries of weapons and equipment to the alliance, its commanders told AFP.

“The deliveries have become greater, both in terms of quantity and quality,” said Nasser Hajj Mansur, an advisor to the SDF general command.


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