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Russian strikes slow rebel assault in Syria’s Aleppo

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Syrian civil defence workers look for survivors under the rubble of a collapsed building following reported air strikes on July 17, 2016 in the rebel-controlled neighbourhood of Karm Homad in the northern city of Aleppo. Opposition-controlled parts of Syria's battered northern city Aleppo came under total siege, after government forces severed the last route out of the east. An estimated 300,000 civilians live in rebel-held neighbourhoods of Syria's second city, according to the United Nations, and there are fears that they could face starvation. THAER MOHAMMED / AFP

Syrian civil defence workers look for survivors under the rubble of a collapsed building following reported air strikes on July 17, 2016 in the rebel-controlled neighbourhood of Karm Homad in the northern city of Aleppo. Opposition-controlled parts of Syria’s battered northern city Aleppo came under total siege, after government forces severed the last route out of the east. An estimated 300,000 civilians live in rebel-held neighbourhoods of Syria’s second city, according to the United Nations, and there are fears that they could face starvation.<br />THAER MOHAMMED / AFP

The Syrian regime’s key ally Russia launched heavy air strikes overnight on the outskirts of divided Aleppo city, slowing a “last-chance” assault by rebels seeking to break a government siege.

The assault began on Sunday and is intended to ease the encirclement of the opposition-held east of Aleppo city, where an estimated 250,000 residents have been under regime siege since July 17.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights described it as the largest rebel attack in Aleppo since 2012, when fighting left the city roughly divided between opposition control in the east and regime forces in the west.

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But government troops backed by Russian warplanes have put up a fierce defence, the monitor said.

“The Russian raids didn’t stop all night on the front lines” there, said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

“This has slowed the offensive and allowed regime troops to retake five of the eight positions that rebels had taken since Sunday,” he added.

The strikes came despite an appeal by US Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday for Russia to “restrain” itself and its ally in Damascus from “offensive operations”.

Kerry said regime attacks had prevented the warring parties from meeting for negotiations on Monday, the target date set for the regime and opposition forces to agree on the framework of a political transition.

Moscow blasted criticism by Washington over its actions.

– New route –

“As soon as there is real headway in fighting terrorists, made by the Syrian government and army with our support, the Americans started… demanding that we stop fighting terrorists,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told RIA-Novosti agency.

The Aleppo offensive groups fighters from Fateh al-Sham Front, formerly Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, the powerful Islamist Ahrar al-Sham and other factions.

The Observatory said 50 rebels and allied jihadists had been killed since it began, as well as dozens of regime troops.

Six people also died and 10 were wounded by mortar fire on regime-controlled districts of southwest Aleppo, it said. The official SANA agency said five people died.

The route used by regime forces and civilians living in government-controlled parts of Aleppo runs through Ramussa, on its southwest outskirts, the main target of the rebel assault.

Its capture would both cut off government forces and open a new route into the city for rebels.

The Observatory said at least 30 civilians had also been killed since Sunday in opposition bombardment of government-held southwestern districts of Aleppo.

“This battle is the last chance for rebels. If they lose, it will be difficult for them to launch a new assault to break the siege,” Abdel Rahman said.

“For the regime also, it’s a question of life or death. They’ve been preparing for this battle for months and it’ll be a tough blow for its troops if they lose.”

Residents in east Aleppo have reported food shortages and rising prices since government troops seized the last remaining road into opposition-held districts of the city on July 17.

– ‘Chlorine attack’ –

Elsewhere in Aleppo province, the Observatory said at least 11 people were killed in air strikes believed to have been carried out by Russian warplanes on the rebel-held town of Atareb.

In the town of Saraqeb, 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Aleppo, 24 people suffered breathing difficulties after a barrel bomb attack, the Observatory said.

Residents said the attack had used chlorine gas, but the monitor could not confirm this.

The incident took place close to where Russia said on Monday one of its military helicopters was shot down over Idlib province, killing the five people on board.

Last week Russia announced the opening of “humanitarian corridors” to allow residents and surrendering fighters to flee eastern Aleppo for government-held territory.

This was met with scepticism by both residents and some internationally, and 35 NGOs in a statement on Tuesday called the initiative “deeply flawed”.

The groups, including Save the Children and Oxfam, urged implementation of a UN call for a weekly 48-hour humanitarian pause in Aleppo.

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But Damascus and Moscow say some residents and fighters have begun using the passages and Syrian state media reported Tuesday that “dozens of families” had crossed from the east.

In the north, meanwhile, the Arab-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces alliance backed by US-led coalition air strikes advanced Tuesday in the jihadist stronghold of Manbij, where it now controls 60 percent of the town, the Observatory said.

Syria’s conflict has killed more than 280,000 people and drawn in world powers on both sides since it erupted in March 2011.


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