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Syrian forces aim to split east Aleppo in two, says rebel commander

BEIRUT: Syrian government forces are trying to split opposition-held eastern Aleppo in two in a fierce ground and air assault that is taking a heavy toll on besieged civilians and rebel fighters who are battling hard to stop them, a rebel commander said.
Abu Abdelrahman Nour, Aleppo commander of the Jabha Shamiya, one of the biggest groups fighting against President Bashar Assad in northern Syria, called for more help from countries such as France and Turkey, saying it would be a “catastrophe” if the government forces managed to bisect eastern Aleppo.
Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city before the start of a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, is already divided into the government-held west and rebel-held east, where UN officials say at least 250,000 people are under siege.
Dividing eastern Aleppo would expose rebel fighters to attack on new fronts and could hasten what would be a major victory for Assad in the rebels’ most important urban stronghold after five years of fighting.
In the latest fighting, the pro-government forces, identified by the rebels mainly as Shiite militias, have sought to advance into an area of northeastern Aleppo, Nour said. Heavy bombardment of civilian areas has also resumed.
“The regime is using heavy, systematic bombardment in the areas where it is trying to advance. This is causing many injuries in the ranks of the revolutionaries,” he said late on Wednesday via Skype from Aleppo.
“For roughly five days the intensity of the attack and clashes in the northeast area has increased, and this threatens the entire eastern region.”
The aim is “to besiege Aleppo twice, and split it into two areas, and this will be a catastrophe if it happens,” Nour said, explaining that the pro-government forces would then able to open new fronts in the battle for Aleppo.
This would further stretch the outgunned rebel fighters after what Nour called “one of the hardest periods” Aleppo had faced.
Parts of the city have been largely reduced to rubble and residents are short of food, medicine and fuel. Nour said flour was being mixed with other foods such as rice and cracked wheat to eke out remaining supplies.
Despite this, Nour said rebel morale was high.
“God willing it will not be easy for the regime. We have excellent capabilities and are defending well,” he said.
The government, backed by Russian air power and Shiite militias from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, has tightened its grip on eastern Aleppo this year, gradually encircling it before launching the new assault in September.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based organization that reports on the war, says pro-Assad forces are making “clear advances” in eastern Aleppo, including the belt of territory that could split the rebel-held east in two.
Asked about the government’s strategy, a Syrian military source said “the army had a number of plans for the eastern districts.” The source said “the matter will be settled sooner or later, and it won’t be later.”
Western states have condemned the Russian-backed campaign that has killed hundreds of people since September. Hospitals and other civilian infrastructure have been hit, and all of east Aleppo’s hospitals were declared out of action last week.
France accused the Syrian government and its allies on Wednesday of using political uncertainty in the United States to launch “total war” against rebel-held areas.
Syrian rebels in besieged east Aleppo have agreed to a UN plan for aid delivery and medical evacuations, but the United Nations is awaiting a green light from Russia and the Syrian government, humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said.
Meanwhile, the Turkish army blamed the Syrian regime for an airstrike on Thursday in northern Syria that killed three soldiers, the first time it has accused Damascus of killing its soldiers since launching its three-month military incursion.
The incident came on the first anniversary of the shooting down of a Russian military jet over the Syrian border by the Turkish air force.
That led to a seven-month crisis in relations between Turkey and Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad that has provided military support to Damascus.
The army said the strike took place at 3:30 a.m. (0030 GMT) without indicating where in Syria, although local media said it took place in the Al Bab region.
“In the airstrike assessed to have been by Syrian regime forces, three of our heroic soldiers were killed and 10 soldiers wounded, one seriously,” the armed forces said in a statement on its website.
Turkish media reported earlier that the attack was by Daesh militants. The prime ministry slapped a broadcasting ban on coverage of the strike an hour after the military’s statement, Turkey’s broadcast watchdog said on its website.
The injured soldiers were taken to hospitals in Turkey’s southeastern cities of Kilis and Gaziantep close to the Syrian border, the official news agency Anadolu said.

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