December 13, 2016 / 7:07 AM / 7 months ago

Syrian army takes over Aleppo areas quit by rebels - military source

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ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) - The Syrian army and its allies have taken full control over all the Aleppo districts abandoned by rebels during their retreat in the city, a Syrian military source said on Tuesday.

Rebel defences collapsed on Monday, leading to a broad army advance across more than half of the remaining insurgent pocket in Aleppo and a retreat of opposition fighters to a few districts on the west bank of the Queiq River.

Recapturing the entire rebel pocket of Aleppo will constitute the biggest battlefield victory yet for President Bashar al-Assad and his military coalition of Syrian troops, the Russian air force, Iran, and Shi'ite militias.

Its loss will leave the rebels without a significant presence in any of Syria's main cities. They still hold much of the countryside west of Aleppo and the province of Idlib, also in northwest Syria.

After days of intense bombardment of rebel-held areas, the rate of shelling and air strikes dropped considerably late on Monday and through the night, a Reuters reporter in the city said.

However, rocket fire continued on rebel-held areas, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitor, reported. Rebels and government force still fought at points around the reduced enclave, the Observatory said.

The military official said the rebels were fleeing "in a state of panic", but a Turkish-based official with the Jabha Shamiya insurgent group in Aleppo said on Monday night that they had established a new frontline along the river.

Celebrations on the government side of the divided city lasted into Monday night, with fighters shooting into the air in triumph.

As the frontlines quickly shifted on Monday, however, thousands more people fled the fighting, carrying what possessions they could carry and some pushing relatives in wheelchairs, before a heavy rainstorm began in the night.

Supporters of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad carry their national flags as they celebrate what they say is the Syrian army's victory against the rebels, in Aleppo, Syria December 12, 2016.Omar Sanadiki

Refugees

A daily bulletin issued by the Russian Defence Ministry's "reconciliation centre" from the Hmeimin airbase used by its war planes, reported that more than 8,000 civilians, more than half of them children, had left east Aleppo in 24 hours.

State television broadcast footage of a tide of hundreds of refugees walking along a ravaged street, wearing thick clothes against the rain and cold, many with hoods or hats pulled tight around their faces, and hauling sacks or bags of belongings.

Smoke rises as seen from a governement-held area of Aleppo, Syria December 12, 2016.Omar Sanadiki

One man was shown pushing a bicycle loaded with bags, another family pulled a small cart on which sat an elderly woman, and another carried a small girl wearing a pink hat on his back.

At the same time, a correspondent from a pro-Damascus television station spoke to camera from a part of Aleppo long held by the government, standing in a tidy street with flowing traffic.

The International Committee for the Red Cross appealed on Monday for all sides to spare civilian life.

"As the battle reaches new peaks and the area is plunged into chaos thousands with no part in the violence have literally nowhere safe to run," the ICRC statement said.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was alarmed by unverified reports of atrocities in the wake of the army's advance, his spokesman said.

Zakaria Malahifji, another Turkish-based official for the Fastaqim rebel group, said on Tuesday that there had been no further international contacts over a proposal to spare the city by allowing fighters to withdraw.

Reporting By Laila Bassam in Aleppo and Angus McDowall in Beirut; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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