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Fierce air strikes continue on besieged Syrian city of Aleppo

THAER MOHAMMED / AFP | A Syrian family leaves the al-Muasalat area in Aleppo, Syria following a reported airstrike on September 23, 2016.

Warplanes launched some of the heaviest air strikes yet on rebel-held areas of Aleppo on Friday after the Russian-backed Syrian army declared an offensive to fully capture Syria’s biggest city, killing off any hope of reviving a ceasefire.


Residents said the streets were deserted as the 250,000 people still trapped in the besieged opposition-held neighbourhoods of Aleppo sought shelter from the raids.

A heavy bombardment on Friday saw at least 47 people lose their lives, including seven children, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Ammar al Selmo, the head of Civil Defence in the opposition-held east, told Reuters on Saturday the toll was over 100.

The rebels and the Syrian Observatory monitoring body claimed that the jets belonged to the Russian air force.

Residents also spoke of attacks by helicopters using bombs made from oil drums, a tactic utilised by the Syrian army.

Missile strikes

“Can you hear it? The neighbourhood is getting hit right now by missiles. We can hear the planes right now,” Mohammad Abu Rajab, a radiologist, told Reuters. “The planes are not leaving the sky, helicopters, barrel bombs, warplanes.”

A rebel commander said the blasts were the fiercest the city had faced.

“I woke up to a powerful earthquake though I was in a place far away from where the missile landed,” he said in a voice recording sent to Reuters.

The intense bombardment quashed any lingering hope that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the Russians would heed US Secretary of State John Kerry’s pleas to reinstate the ceasefire, which lasted a week before collapsing on Monday.

Syrian army issues warning

Late on Thursday, the Syrian military announced “the start of its operations in the eastern districts of Aleppo”, and warned people to stay away from “the headquarters and positions of the armed terrorist gangs”.

A military source on Friday said the offensive on Aleppo would be “comprehensive”, with a ground assault following the air and artillery bombardment.

“With respect to the air or artillery strikes, they may continue for some time,” it said.
The Syrian announcement on Thursday coincided with international meetings on Syria in New York; the latest diplomatic efforts officially intended to revive the truce, which was brokered by the United States and Russia.

Its collapse, the same fate as all previous efforts to halt the nearly six year civil war which has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians, has doomed what may be the final chance for a breakthrough before President Barack Obama leaves office.

Assad tightens grip

The Syrian government, strengthened by Russian air power and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias, has been tightening its grip on rebel-held districts of Aleppo this year, and this summer achieved a long-held goal of encircling the area. The government already controls the west of the city.

Recovering full control of Aleppo would be the most important victory of the war so far for Assad, who has sought to consolidate his grip over the western cities where the overwhelming majority of Syrians lived before fighting drove half of the population from their homes.

Nearly three million people lived in the city before the war, which was Syria’s economic hub.

The US-Russian agreement marked the second attempt this year to halt the war.

It was supposed to bring about a nationwide ceasefire, improve humanitarian aid access, and see a joint US-Russian effort to combat jihadist groups including the so-called Islamic State group and the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing.

‘Long, painful, difficult’

But the ceasefire collapsed on Monday with renewed bombardments, including a now infamous attack on an aid convoy that Washington has blamed on Moscow. The Kremlin has vigorously denied the US allegations.

At the United Nations on Thursday, the United States and Russia failed to agree on how to revive the ceasefire during what UN Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura called a “long, painful, difficult and disappointing” meeting.

The International Syria Support Group, including Moscow, Washington and other major powers, met on the sidelines of the annual UN gathering of world leaders in New York.

On Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the UN that there was "no alternative" to the Russian and US-led peace process.

The foreign minister addressed the General Assembly after holding talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry on Syria.

Kerry told reporters that there had been "a little bit of progress" during his talks with Lavrov.



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