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Syrian rebels launch offensive on regime-held parts of Aleppo

Karam Al-Masri, AFP | The rebel-held part of Salaheddin neighbourhood near the crossing to the government-held side in Aleppo on July 30, 2016

Syrian rebel fighters launched a major assault on government-held parts of Aleppo on Sunday in their first major campaign to retake parts of the city that have been claimed by loyalist forces and allies.

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Rebels attacked regime forces south and southwest of Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city, after suffering major losses last week as the Syrian army and allied militias tightened a siege of opposition-held neighbourhoods.

President Bashar al-Assad’s government and its Russian allies last week declared that a joint humanitarian corridor in the besieged area was open, dropping leaflets urging rebel fighters to surrender and civilians to leave.

Syrian state TV broadcast pictures showed images of the alleged corridor, with mostly women and children walking along under the protection of soldiers.

Humanitarian agencies nevertheless expressed doubt about how many people were using the corridor to leave the city, and rebels claimed the reports were false.

“We have been talking to our contacts inside Aleppo and none of them have been able to confirm people are using these so-called corridors,” Pablo Marco, head of the Middle East programme for Doctors Without Borders, told FRANCE 24.

Marco also expressed concern over the “worsening” situation in Aleppo, where hospitals and medical facilities have been increasingly targeted by airstrikes.

“We are here, in one of the so-called corridors,” Yasser Flis, a commander with the Ahrar al-Sham rebel group said in a video. “They haven't opened anything, and there are more air raids and shelling in the neighbourhood and other areas.”

The United Nations has raised misgivings about the humanitarian operation, and US officials have suggested it may be an attempt to depopulate Aleppo - the most important opposition stronghold in Syria – so that the army can seize it.

Major rebel campaign

A rebel military command centre that includes the newly formed group Islamist Jabhat Fatah al Sham – the former al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and Ahrar al Sham – said they had taken over army positions in the south-western government-held parts of the city.

The Syrian army confirmed on state media that rebels had waged an offensive but said its fighters pushed back insurgents from an airforce artillery base and denied insurgents had made significant gains.

A quarter of a million civilians still live in Aleppo’s opposition-controlled eastern neighbourhoods, effectively under siege since the army, aided by Iranian-backed militias, cut off the last road into rebel districts in early July.

The army, backed by allied militia forces and air strikes from Syrian and Russian jets, had taken last week significant ground on the northern edge of the city, around the Castello road which leads out of Aleppo and north towards Turkey.

The army and pro-government forces took full control of the Bani Zeid district, on the southern side of the Castello road and was amassing troops to make new inroads into the rebel-held areas. Jets also bombed rebel-held Khan Touman in the southern countryside of Aleppo.

The UK Observatory for Human Rights said the assault was by far the biggest rebel campaign waged against government forces in Aleppo since the escalation in fighting in recent months.

Seizing control of Aleppo would be the biggest victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in five years of fighting, and demonstrate the dramatic shift of fortunes in his favour since Moscow joined the war on his side last year.

UN negotiations

Meanwhile, the United Nations suggested that there may be some progress on restarting peace talks between Assad’s government and the opposition.

UN Deputy Special Envoy for Syria Ramzy E. Ramzy on Sunday held talks with Syrian officials in Damascus to sound out their position on how to break an impasse.

Ramzy said he and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moulem discussed the subject of political transition, which has been a major sticking point in negotiations between the government and opposition groups.

“We discussed how to render this process of political transition, which has already been endorsed by the Security Council, to be a credible one," Ramzy told reporters, but did not give details.

The UN said last week it hoped to convene a new round of Syria peace talks toward the end of August, and called for a US-Russia deal to support the talks.

The Syrian government has said it is ready to attend a next round of talks but the mainstream opposition, which also accuses the government of preventing aid access to besieged rebel-held areas, said it would not attend unless conditions improved on the ground.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

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