Heavy artillery exchanges rocked Syria’s battleground second city Aleppo throughout the night as government forces pressed a two-pronged assault on rebel-held districts, an AFP correspondent reported Saturday.
The government’s offensive to recapture the whole of Aleppo has been bolstered by its Russian ally’s rejection of Western demands for a halt to its deadly bombing campaign in support of the advancing troops.
There have been mounting civilian casualties on both sides of the divided city. About 250,000 residents are living under siege by the army in the rebel-held east, and around 1.2 million face daily rocket fire by the rebels on the government-held west.
Medical charity Doctors Without Borders described the impact of Syrian and Russian bombardment of the eastern parts of the city as a “bloodbath.”
The civilian death toll has triggered mounting outrage in the West against both the regime and its Russian ally. The State Department has threatened to end all diplomatic discussions with Moscow on Syria if the assault on Aleppo continues. On Friday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters that the threat remains on the table.
“We’re on the verge because we have not yet seen them take the type of actions we are looking for them to take,” Toner said.
“This is on life support,” he said of US-Russian diplomacy. “But it’s not flat-lined yet.”
Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told Saturday’s Sun newspaper that Moscow risked becoming an international pariah, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced Friday a board of inquiry to investigate the bombing of an aid convoy on the outskirts of Aleppo last month that killed 18 people.
Russia on Friday marked one year since it launched its air campaign in Syria in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. In light of that, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a warning to Russians abroad about possible “provocations,” urging them to exercise caution.
A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia’s involvement in Syria is justified by the fact that militants have not managed to capture the capital, Damascus. Marking the 1st anniversary, Dmitry Peskov said that Putin never gave a timeline for how long the bombing mission might last and still won’t.
Russia’s declared goal was to support the Syrian government of Russia’s long-term ally, and Peskov insisted that in that respect the operation has been a success.
If it wasn’t for the Russian involvement, the Islamic State group and other “terrorists” would have been “sitting in Damascus,” he told reporters.
Six children were among 20 civilians killed in the rebel-held sector of the devastated city on Friday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. More than 220 people have been killed in the east of the city since the government launched its offensive on September 22, the Britain-based monitoring group said.
In west Aleppo, rebel rocket fire killed 15 civilians and wounded 40 on Friday, state television reported.
The fighting saw the army advance in both the Suleiman al-Halabi neighborhood in the city center and the Bustan al-Basha district in the north, the Observatory said.
Residents of government-held neighborhoods expressed relief that the rebels were being pushed back but said they feared retaliation.
“We were happy when we heard about the army’s advance,” said Majed Abboud, a 32-year-old car dealer.
“But I’m afraid that with these ferocious clashes, there will be some kind of reaction from the armed groups,” he said.
“They hit us with rockets and there were many casualties today [Friday] in Suleiman al-Halabi and Al-Midan.”
The offensive has seen the army win back territory in the north of Aleppo it had not held since 2013.
Troops have also pushed back the front line in the city center, which had remained largely static since the rebels seized eastern districts in 2012.