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Syrian army seizes rebel territory in heart of Aleppo

People walk past damaged buildings in the rebel-held Tariq al-Bab neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria, October 5, 2016. To match Insight MIDEAST-CRISIS/SYRIA-ALEPPO REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Beirut / AFP

Syrian government forces advanced against rebels inside Aleppo on Thursday, making their biggest gains in the ravaged city in years just hours after announcing they would ease their air bombardment.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said loyalist fighters now controlled around half of the Bustan al-Basha district near the centre of the divided metropolis.
“It’s the most important advance for the regime in Aleppo since 2013,” said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.
The advances come two weeks after the government announced an operation to recapture the rebel-held east of the city following the collapse of a short-lived truce negotiated by Russia and the United States.
The assault has seen rebel-held areas pounded relentlessly with air strikes, barrel bombs and artillery fire that have killed more than 270 people, according to the Observatory.
“The military command has decided to reduce the number of air and artillery strikes on terrorist positions to allow civilians who want to leave to reach safe areas,” a statement said.
The Observatory said there had been fewer air strikes on Thursday, but that heavy clashes were underway in Bustan Al Basha, with the army now controlling several key vantage points and half of the neighbourhood.

Army announcement a ‘gimmick’
Analysts dismissed the army’s announcement of a reduction in its bombardment as as a “PR gimmick”.
“The regime and its allies have made a decision to conquer as much of eastern Aleppo as possible and they’re moving ahead on that,” said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“I think such announcements are actually marginal. They are a PR gimmick.”
Syria expert Thomas Pierret said the move could be intended to undercut growing international pressure for action over the plight of civilians in east Aleppo, which UN chief Ban Ki-moon has described as worse than “a slaughterhouse.”
The bombardment has damaged or destroyed several hospitals, including the largest facility serving the estimated 250,000 remaining residents, who have been under near-continuous siege since mid-July.
“The aerial onslaught on Aleppo… has bolstered Western proponents of a tougher approach” on Syria, said Pierret, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh.
“A temporary halt or reduction of bombings could prevent interventionists from gaining further influence.”

US-Russia ‘engagement remains’
Moscow has said the “responsibility for the collapse of the truce lies with the US” and has shown no signs of easing its support for Assad, more than a year into its military intervention in Syria.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault was to travel to Moscow on Thursday and Washington on Friday to try to garner support for a UN resolution on a ceasefire for Aleppo, his office said.
More than 300,000 people have been killed since the conflict began with fierce repression of anti-government protests in March 2011.
It has since evolved into a complex multi-front war that has drawn in regional and international forces including, most recently, Turkey.

Blast at Syria-Turkey
border kills 29 rebels

Beirut / AFP

At least 29 Syrian rebels were killed in a blast at a border crossing with Turkey on Thursday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Britain-based monitoring group said it was unclear what caused the explosion at the Atme crossing between Turkey and the northern Syrian province of Idlib, adding that around 20 people had also been wounded.
The IS extremist group, which has been fighting the rebels and their Turkish allies, said a “soldier of the caliphate” detonated a car bomb as the rebel fighters were crossing into Syria, US-based monitor SITE Intelligence Group
reported.
The IS statement said several commanders of the Ahrar Al Sham rebel group were among the dead.
Turkey’s state-run Anatolia news agency said the deadly blast took place during a “change of guard” among Syrian rebels in the area.
The rebels killed on Thursday were among those participating in Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield in neighbouring Aleppo province.

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