ALEPPO // Syrian warplanes, artillery and mortar rounds pounded areas in eastern Aleppo on Saturday as government forces gained ground in the shrinking rebel-held enclave.
After four years of holding nearly half of the divided city, rebel fighters have been increasingly squeezed into the centre of eastern Aleppo. Government and allied troops, including Lebanese, Iraqi and Iranian fighters, have concentrated their fight on the north-eastern part of the enclave, swiftly taking new districts since their offensive began last week. Another front on the southern outskirts of the city has been slower, as rebel fighters push back government advances there.
The advances have caused massive displacement. The UN estimated that more than 31,000 have already fled their homes, either to government or Kurdish areas, or deeper into the besieged enclave. The fighting has also intensified the rebel shelling of government-held areas in Aleppo.
The state broadcaster Al Ikhbariya reported “precise operations” by government and allied troops to rout out “terrorists” – the government term for all armed opposition groups.
Warplanes made several runs overhead early on Saturday, drawing rebel machine gunfire.
Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted a Syrian military official as saying that a light ground attack aircraft was shot down near Aleppo, and its crew was killed. The opposition Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said rebel fighters targeted the aircraft as it approached Aleppo airport to the east of the city.
The Syrian army spokesman in Aleppo, Brig Gen Samir Suleiman said he had no information about the incident.
Brig Gen Suleiman said the Syrian army had regained control of 45 to 50 per cent of east Aleppo, and accused the rebels of hiding among civilians.
Syria’s defence minister and other officials visited the newly captured areas on Saturday, according to state-run media.
The Syrian Civil Defence in eastern Aleppo said six people were killed in bombings of the central Al Shaar neighbourhood. In government-held Aleppo, rebel shelling killed five people, according to the state news agency Sana.
To the south of the city, government cannon could be heard firing toward rebel-held areas.
Residents also reported intense shelling in Al Sukkari neighbourhood on the southern edge of eastern Aleppo, where many of the newly displaced have sought refuge.
“The noose is tightening quickly,” said Mohammed Abu Jaafar, a medical official in besieged eastern Aleppo. “Our resources are also running low and beginning to disappear.”
The bombings on Saturday came hours after advances by government troops, including in Tariq Al Bab and Al Khaterji districts.
They also secured the airport road east of Aleppo, leading to the city’s international airport and a military airbase. The pan-Arab Mayadeen TV station said intense bombing in eastern Aleppo was designed to ensure rebels have been cleared from the airport road.
Moscow, a main backer of the Syrian government, says its warplanes have not bombed Aleppo since October 18. But the Russian military has helped fend off rebel attempts to break the siege of the city.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was ready to hold talks with the United States “to ensure the withdrawal of all rebels without exception from eastern Aleppo, ensure humanitarian supplies to the city residents and the restoration of normal life in eastern Aleppo”.
Mr Lavrov and the US secretary of State John Kerry will meet in Geneva this week. After a meeting in Rome on Friday, Mr Lavrov said Mr Kerry gave him Washington’s proposals for settling the situation in Aleppo, which he described as conforming to Russia’s longtime offers.
* Associated Press