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Intense battle in Syria's Aleppo kills dozens, air strikes force rebel retreat

Intense battle in Syria's Aleppo kills dozens, air strikes force rebel retreat
May 4, 2016
ALEPPO, Syria – Dozens of people were killed in an intense day-long battle between Syrian rebels and government forces in western Aleppo that continued intermittently on Wednesday, with rebels saying they were forced to retreat by heavy aerial bombing. An insurgent assault in and around the Jamiyat al-Zahraa area of Aleppo had threatened the army's defensive lines around government-held districts of a city at the epicenter of a recent escalation in the five-year-old civil war. The surge in bloodshed in Aleppo, Syria's largest city and biggest strategic prize, wrecked the first major "cessation of hostilities" agreement of the war, sponsored by Washington and Moscow, which had held since February. The German and French foreign ministers said that achieving a ceasefire in Aleppo was critical to renewing peace talks. "I believe everyone knows and can conclude that there could be no return to the political talks in Geneva if a ceasefire in and around Aleppo is not observed," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters in Berlin. In Geneva, a senior United Nations humanitarian official said the Syrian government was refusing U.N. demands to deliver aid to hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped by the fighting, including many in devastated Aleppo. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said dozens had been killed on both sides in what it described as the most intense battle in the Aleppo region in a year. Government forces were reinforced by allies from Lebanon's Hezbollah, it said. A rebel fighter said about 40 government soldiers had been killed, while rebel losses stood at 10 dead. A military source denied there had been heavy casualties in army ranks, but said dozens of civilians and many rebels had been killed. Rebel sources said insurgents had at one point captured a strategic location known as Family House, but later lost it after the government side sent in reinforcements. A pro-government military strategist said the offensive failed to breach key army defense and supply lines in Aleppo. "The assault was repelled, foiling a major attempt by these terrorist groups to make a breakthrough into the heart of Aleppo," Hassan Hassan said on state-run Ikhbariyah TV. A rebel source said sustained air strikes on insurgents arrayed along the fringes of government-controlled Jamiyat al Zahraa had forced them into a retreat. "The air force is the only weapon that exhausts us, especially (the use of) barrel bombing," said Mohammad al Sulaiman, a field commander from the Free Syrian Army's Liwa Fursan al Haq brigade. Rebels said jets believed to be both Russian and Syrian continued to pound their positions near Jamiyat al Zahraa. Other air and artillery strikes hit rebel emplacements around the Castello highway, the main supply route into rebel-held Aleppo. MOSTLY CIVILIAN CASUALTIES IN ALEPPO Most of the people killed in Aleppo in the last few weeks have been civilians. The Observatory said 279 civilians had been killed in Aleppo by bombardment since April 22 - 155 of them in opposition-held areas and 124 in government-held districts. Syria's conflict has killed at least 250,000 people and displaced half its pre-war 22 million population, giving rise to the world's worst refugee crisis. Russia turned the tide of the war in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's favor with a campaign of heavy aerial bombing launched last September, while the United States and some allies have provided limited support to non-Islamist rebel forces. Temporary local ceasefires have been put in place in two areas of Syria but those have not been extended to Aleppo. Syrian opposition figure Riad Hijab, speaking before talks with the German and French foreign ministers and the U.N.'s Syria envoy, said a general ceasefire was needed across Syria, rather than one confined to specific regions. That formula is not working, said Hijab, adding that the opposition had reached a dead end with Assad in peace talks. "There needs to be an agreement according to U.N. Security Council Resolution 2268 that includes all Syrian areas where moderate opposition exists," he said. On Wednesday, Russia blamed the United States and an upsurge in violence by Islamist Nusra Front militants for a failure to extend a ceasefire plan to Aleppo the previous day. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday that the deal covering Aleppo was close and that the Russian and U.S. militaries might announce a decision "in the coming hours". But such a local truce, also known as "a regime of calm," never materialized. Russian news agencies quoted Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov as saying Russian and U.S. military officers were holding "active consultations" with the Assad government and "moderate opposition" on how to salvage the truce plan. –Reuters
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