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Syria army pounds Aleppo rebels as Russia vows no let-up

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A man waves to a member of the Syrian pro-government forces patrolling a street in the newly retaken Bab al-Hadid neighbourhood in Aleppo's Old City on December 8, 2016. President Bashar al-Assad said victory for his forces in Aleppo would be a "huge step" in ending Syria's war, as government troops battled to retake more rebel ground. Regime forces have retaken about 80 percent of former rebel territory in Aleppo since launching an all-out offensive three weeks ago to recapture Syria's second city. / AFP PHOTO / GEORGE OURFALIAN

A man waves to a member of the Syrian pro-government forces patrolling a street in the newly retaken Bab al-Hadid neighbourhood in Aleppo’s Old City on December 8, 2016. President Bashar al-Assad said victory for his forces in Aleppo would be a “huge step” in ending Syria’s war, as government troops battled to retake more rebel ground. Regime forces have retaken about 80 percent of former rebel territory in Aleppo since launching an all-out offensive three weeks ago to recapture Syria’s second city. / AFP PHOTO / GEORGE OURFALIAN

Syrian government artillery pummelled fast-shrinking rebel territory in Aleppo on Friday as key regime backer Russia vowed no end to the bombardment while opposition fighters remain in the battleground city.

The United Nations voiced concern at allegations that hundreds of men had disappeared after fleeing to government-held areas, and said opposition groups were reportedly blocking others from leaving east Aleppo.

Retreating rebels now control only a pocket of Syria’s second city, whose fate is seen as pivotal to the outcome of a nearly six-year-old war that has killed more than 300,000 people.

The boom of artillery was heard through the night and on Friday in the opposition-held enclave, an AFP correspondent reported.

Air strikes on east Aleppo halted on Thursday evening following Moscow’s announcement of a “humanitarian pause” but heavy shelling continued into the morning, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

More than 400 civilians, including 45 children, have been killed in east Aleppo since the latest offensive began on November 15, according to the British-based monitor which has a network of sources on the ground.

Rebel fire into the government-controlled west is reported to have killed more than 100 people, including 35 children.

After talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Hamburg on Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced a pause in the army’s assault to allow for the evacuation of thousands of civilians.

But Lavrov said Friday: “After a humanitarian pause, (the strikes) have resumed and will continue for as long as the bandits are still in Aleppo.”

– ‘Too little, too late’ –
The UN General Assembly was to vote Friday on a draft resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire and access for humanitarian aid, although the British ambassador described the measure as “too little, too late”.

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura briefed the Security Council on Thursday ahead of talks in Geneva on Saturday between the United States and Russia on a possible deal that would allow civilians and rebel fighters to leave Aleppo.

Syria’s army, backed by Iranian fighters and the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, has recaptured 85 percent of the eastern parts of Aleppo that the rebels had held since mid-2012.

Rebels in Aleppo on Wednesday called for an “immediate five-day humanitarian ceasefire”, but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said the chance of a truce was “practically non-existent” as he eyed victory in the city.

The fall of east Aleppo would be “a huge step” towards the end of the war, Assad said in an interview with Syrian daily Al-Watan published on Thursday.

The eastern sector has been devastated by air strikes, artillery fire and barrel bombs — crude unguided explosive devices dropped by helicopters that cause indiscriminate damage.

Civilians have lived for months under a regime siege and faced severe food and fuel shortages.

Tens of thousands have fled the east of the city since the army began its assault.

It is unclear how many remain but an estimated 250,000 civilians were in the sector when the latest regime offensive.

The United Nations says that up to 500 sick and injured children desperately needed to be evacuated, and on Friday said it had reports of rebels preventing evacuations but also government arrests of those who had managed to flee.

“Some of the civilians who are attempting to flee are reportedly being blocked by armed opposition groups,” a spokesman for the UN human rights office, Rupert Colville, told reporters in Geneva.

He added: “While it’s very difficult to establish the facts in such a fluid and dangerous situation, we have received very worrying allegations that hundreds of men have gone missing after crossing into government-controlled areas.”

The White Helmets volunteer rescue group, which was nominated this year for a Nobel Peace Prize, has appealed for “urgent safe passage” for its staff, their families and other humanitarian workers in east Aleppo.

“If we are not evacuated, our volunteers face torture and execution in the regime’s detention centres,” it said in a statement.

Syria’s conflict has escalated into a multi-front war involving regime forces, rebels, Kurds and jihadists since it began in 2011 with anti-government protests.

Turkey has sent 300 commandos to the Syrian frontier to join a Turkish-led operation to support Syrian rebels seeking to oust Islamic State group jihadists from the border zone, Turkish media reported Friday.


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