Syrian state media said government forces Saturday captured the largest rebel-held district of Aleppo, in what would be a major breakthrough in its offensive to retake the entire second city.
Masaken Hanano was the first district the rebels took in the summer of 2012 in a move that divided Aleppo into an eastern area held by the insurgents and a western district controlled by government forces.
Since then, more than 250,000 civilians have been trapped under government siege for months in the rebel-held east, with dwindling food and fuel supplies.
The capture of Masaken Hanano in northeastern Aleppo is part of a major government offensive now in its 12th day that could isolate that part of the city from rebel-held areas in the south.
Since November 15, regime bombardment of eastern Aleppo has killed 212 civilians, including 27 children, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Regime forces had been advancing inside Masaken Hanano for several days, and on Friday state television said they were progressing “from three axes”.
On Saturday, the state broadcaster and the official SANA news agency said President Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces, backed by their allies, had taken “full control” of the district.
“The armed forces retook full control of Masaken Hanano after having put an end to the presence of terrorists there,” the state broadcaster said, referring to the rebels.
SANA said government forces also recaptured the area around the district and “army engineers are clearing it of bombs and explosives planted by the terrorists in the streets and squares”.
But Yasser al-Youssef, from the rebel group Nureddin al-Zinki, said fighting was still under way on the southern edges of Masaken Hanano, which he called a district of “strategic importance”.
Youssef warned that if regime forces can advance to the adjacent neighbourhood of Sakhur, then eastern Aleppo will be split in two.
The Observatory also said late Saturday that regime forces now completely controlled Masaken Hanano and had begun an assault on Sakhur and nearby Al-Haidariya.
– Families flee –
The latest regime push comes after days of intense bombardment on the rebel-held east, which was pounded with air strikes, shells and barrel bombs.
The escalation has terrified residents, and several families have fled to areas in southeastern Aleppo which have been relatively calm.
On Saturday, an AFP correspondent in one of those districts saw four families, without belongings, arrive on foot seeking shelter.
“In Hanano, for the past three days, they haven’t been able to set foot outside because of the intense bombardment,” said Abu Fadel, who helped them find lodgings.
“They left on foot because they had no other means of transport. At first they were afraid but when they saw many people around and that there was no bombardment they were reassured,” he said.
Damascus says east Aleppo residents and surrendering fighters are free to leave, but accuses the rebels of using civilians as “human shields”.
Before the army said it had captured Masaken Hanano, dozens of families fled from Sakhur and Al-Haidariya districts and headed further south, the Observatory said.
They took flight as regime forces pounded eastern Aleppo with air raids, including Sakhur, killing at least 11 civilians, it said.
The United Nations has a plan to deliver aid to Aleppo and evacuate the sick and wounded, which rebel factions have approved but which Damascus has yet to agree. Guarantees are also needed from regime ally Russia.
Also on Saturday, a string of explosions rocked a munitions storage site in northeastern Syria used by the US-led coalition battling the Islamic State group, the Observatory and a local official said. Contacted by AFP, the coalition said there had been “no reports of explosions” at the site.