BEIRUT: Syrian troops and allied forces advanced overnight seizing Aleppo’s Tariq al-Bab neighborhood from rebels as they press an offensive to recapture all of the city, a monitor said on Saturday.
The capture of the neighborhood means the government has now retaken around 60 percent of the east of the city, which the rebels overran in mid-2012, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The advance also restores control of a road leading from government-controlled western neighborhoods of the city to Aleppo airport, which the regime also holds.
The government’s capture of Tariq al-Bab came after ferocious clashes that sent civilians flooding out of the adjacent neighborhood of Al-Shaar.
An Agence France-Presse correspondent saw only a few rebel fighters in the district on Friday as the government advanced, with shops and bakeries shuttered and vegetable stalls shattered by heavy shelling.
More than 300 civilians have been killed in east Aleppo since the government resumed its offensive to oust the rebels on November 15.
The United Nations has warned that the sector risks becoming a “giant graveyard” for the 250,000-plus civilians who were trapped there just last week. Tens of thousands have since fled.
President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have made swift gains since their offensive against Aleppo —once Syria’s commercial powerhouse —began on November 15.
Tens of thousands of civilians have streamed out of the city’s east, and Russia has renewed calls for humanitarian corridors so aid can enter and desperate residents can leave.
Regime forces on Friday “consolidated their control” over two eastern districts and were pushing further to squeeze the shrinking rebel enclave, said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights head Rami Abdel Rahman.
“After the recent advances, the regime is comfortably in control of half of former rebel territory in the city’s east,” he said on Friday.
Dozens of families trickled out Friday, adding to the more than 50,000 people who have poured from east Aleppo into territory controlled by government forces or local Kurdish authorities, the Observatory said.
Among those fleeing are nearly 20,000 children, according to estimates by the United Nation’s children’s agency.
“What is critical now is that we provide the immediate and sustained assistance that these children and their families desperately need,” UNICEF spokesman Christophe Boulierac said. “It’s a race against time, as winter is here and conditions are basic.”
The loss of east Aleppo — a rebel stronghold since 2012 — would be the biggest blow to Syria’s opposition in more than five years.
Earlier on Friday, anti-government fighters had successfully rolled back regime gains in Sheikh Saeed on Aleppo’s southeastern outskirts.
Wary of Russian offers
Moscow has proposed setting up four humanitarian corridors into east Aleppo.
“We have informed the UN in New York and Geneva that there is no longer a problem with the delivery of humanitarian cargo to eastern Aleppo,” Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
He said the UN was coming up with a plan and approval from Syrian authorities remained essential.
Moscow has announced several humanitarian pauses in Aleppo to allow civilians to flee, but until the recent escalation, only a handful did so.
East Aleppo residents have been wary of previous such offers because of Russia’s support for Assad, including a bombing campaign backing his forces since September 2015.
US Secretary of State John Kerry late on Friday said he had spoken to Lavrov about the situation in Aleppo.
“We are deeply concerned about the humanitarian disaster that continues to unfold in Aleppo,” he said. “It is absolutely vital that the killings be replaced by immediate moves of humanitarian goods.”
The conflict erupted in March 2011 with protests calling for Assad’s ouster, and has since evolved into a highly globalised war that has killed more than 300,000 people.