October 4, 2016 / 10:22 AM / a year ago

Rebels repel Aleppo assault as air strikes persist

AMMAN (Reuters) - Rebels said on Tuesday they had repelled a Syrian army offensive in southern Aleppo as Russian and Syrian warplanes continued to pound residential areas in besieged parts of the city where thousands of civilians are trapped.

They said they inflicted losses on pro-government fighters after several hours of clashes on the fringe of Sheikh Saed district, at the southern edge of the rebel-held eastern half of Aleppo city.

"We repelled their attempt to advance in Sheikh Saed and killed 10 regime fighters and destroyed several vehicles," said a fighter from the Failaq al-Sham rebel group who gave his name as Abdullah al-Halabi.

Pro-government media said the Syrian army was pressing ahead in a major campaign supported by Iranian-backed militias and Russian air power to take full control of the divided northern Syrian city after a ceasefire collapsed last month.

The army offensive is backed by an air campaign by President Bashar al-Assad's government and its allies that has hit hospitals, destroyed infrastructure and caused hundreds of civilian casualties.

In the 15 days since the collapse of the ceasefire, war monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had documented the deaths of 293 civilians in besieged east Aleppo as a result of air strikes and shelling.

It documented 25 deaths in government-held west Aleppo as a result of rebel shelling.

Another rebel commander from the Nour al-Din al-Zinki group said the army had opened several fronts simultaneously since the launch of a ground assault in order to stretch rebel forces, and had dropped leaflets from helicopters calling on them to surrender.

After securing the strategic Handarat camp in the northern edge of the city last Thursday following what rebels described as carpet bombing, the army pressed on south of the camp.

It took the ruins of the former Kindi hospital, from where soldiers could control the Jandoul traffic circle, a major road intersection. "They levelled the ground and our people had no choice but to retreat under the bombing of the Russians," the Zinki commander said.

Rebels say Kurdish YPG militia controlling the strategic Sheikh Maqsoud district in north Aleppo city have also taken advantage of the army gains to move towards the Shuqif industrial area that lies between Handarat and their enclave.

That would allow the army and its allied militias to move deeper into rebel-held northern districts of the city, although rebels expect the army thrust will slow in residential areas that offer them more cover from air raids.

"The battles inside the city's districts as the regime applies more pressure will be difficult as these areas are better defended and will allow the rebels to hold out," said Halabi.

In the heart of the city, war planes believed to be Russian and flying at high altitude hit Bustan al Qasr, Hay al Huluk and Fardous neighbourhoods with reports of casualties, several rebel contacts said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had documented 20 deaths from shelling and air strikes on rebel-held eastern Aleppo on Tuesday.

State television said insurgent shelling killed five people in government-held areas of the city on Tuesday. State media said rebel-shelling into a university complex in government-held Aleppo had killed one and injured eight.

In the Aleppo countryside, Russian and Syrian war planes dropped incendiary bombs on the towns of Darat Izza and al-Zirba.

RUSSIAN EMBASSY HIT

The Russian embassy in Damascus was hit by mortar fire on Monday, a Russian foreign ministry statement said.

According to the statement, two mortar shells exploded near the embassy and another hit the area close to an apartment block on the mission's territory.

"It was by chance that none of the embassy employees were injured," the statement said.

The Russian foreign ministry said the shells had been fired from the Jobar neighbourhood east of Damascus. Jobar is controlled by rebel groups Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Failaq al-Rahman and mortars fired from there occasionally reach central Damascus.

This is not the first time this year shells have fallen around the embassy.

"We see the shelling of the Russian embassy in Syria as the result of actions of those, who like the U.S. and some of their allies, provoke the continuation of the bloody conflict in Syria by flirting with militants and various kinds of extremists," the Russian ministry added.

Separately, rebels fighting Islamic State militants said they killed at least 30 militants after a failed attempt to gain ground in Eastern Qalamoun area, north of Damascus, where fighting has escalated in recent weeks.

Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi, Tom Perry and Lisa Barrington in Beirut. Addiitonal reporting by Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow.; Editing by Ralph Boulton

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