Rebels in Aleppo driven out from half of their territory

Government forces face fierce resistance in Sheikh Saeed district, whose capture would allow them to target all the remaining areas the rebels hold.

Syrian pro-government forces set up an outpost in the Aleppo’s eastern neighbourhood of Sakan Al Shababi after they retook from rebel fighters on December 2, 2016. George Ourfalian / AFP
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Aleppo // Syrian government forces have recaptured half of rebel-held territory in Aleppo since launching an offensive in mid-November, a monitoring group said on Friday.

“After the recent advances, the regime is comfortably in control of half of former rebel territory in the city’s east,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Regime forces retook north-eastern areas of Aleppo earlier this week in an incursion that sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing.

They consolidated their control over two eastern districts on Friday, but faced fierce resistance in Sheikh Saeed, a large district on the city’s south-eastern edges.

“The regime and allied fighters wanted to take this neighbourhood at any cost because capturing it would allow them to target all remaining rebel-held districts,” Mr Abdel Rahman said. “But rebels put up ferocious resistance, because they knew they would be trapped if Sheikh Saeed fell.”

Sheikh Saeed borders the last sections of Aleppo still in rebel hands – a collection of densely populated residential neighbourhoods where thousands have sought refuge from advancing regime forces.

Hundreds of fighters from Syria’s elite Republican Guard and Fourth Division arrived in Aleppo on Friday in preparation for street-by-street fighting in these districts, the Observatory said.

There were clashes on the city’s eastern edges as regime forces sought to secure the road to the airport, and fighting could also be heard in the Tariq Al Bab district. Civilians had already fled the adjacent neighbourhood of Al Shaar, where a few rebels manned positions in the streets.

Dozens more families left rebel-held areas on Friday, adding to the more than 50,000 people who have poured out of east Aleppo in the past week into government or Kurdish-held territory, the Observatory said. The United Nations estimates their number at 31,500, including nearly 20,000 children.

“What is critical now is that we provide the immediate and sustained assistance that these children and their families desperately need,” said Christophe Boulierac, spokesman for Unicef.

“It’s a race against time, as winter is here and conditions are basic.”

Russia, an ally of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, said on Friday that convoys of humanitarian aid would now be able to pass safely into eastern Aleppo. The UN would still need approval from the Syrian government, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said.

Also on Friday, the government retook the town of Khan Al Shih just outside Damascus after rebel groups who had controlled it since 2012 left in return for safe passage to the rebel-held province of Idlib.

* Agence France-Presse