Syria army readies Aleppo offensive as civilian toll rises

The Syrian army was preparing an offensive on Thursday to retake Aleppo.

ALEPPO (AFP) – The Syrian army was preparing an offensive on Thursday to retake Aleppo, as escalating fighting in the divided second city killed dozens of civilians in a new blow to a tattered truce.

Nearly 200 people have been killed in Aleppo in the past week as rebels have pounded government-held neighbourhoods with rocket and artillery fire and the regime has hit rebel areas with air raids.

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura warned the hard-won Feb 27 ceasefire was now “barely alive” and pleaded for urgent action by its co-sponsors Russia and the United States to rescue it.

But pro-government newspaper Al-Watan said the army was poised for “decisive battle” for Aleppo and the surrounding province while a source close to the regime said the campaign was imminent.

“Now is the time to launch the battle for the complete liberation of Aleppo,” the paper said, adding that it “will not take long to begin, nor to finish.”

The regime source told AFP that “the army is preparing a huge operation in the coming days to push the rebels away from the city by encircling it and creating a security zone”.

Rebels have controlled eastern districts of Aleppo since 2012, while western neighbourhoods are held by the regime.

Control of the surrounding province is divided between a myriad of armed groups – militants of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group, Kurdish militia and various rebel factions as well as the army.

Further north in the province, rebels including the powerful Ahrar al-Sham group and Kurdish forces fought fierce battles Wednesday and early Thursday that left 64 fighters dead, a monitor said.

The upsurge in violence in and around Aleppo has severely strained the February truce between the government and non-militant rebels and cast a shadow over the UN envoy s hopes of convening a new round of peace talks next month.

Rebel rocket and artillery fire on government-held neighbourhoods on Thursday killed 22 civilians, including two children, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Regime air strikes on rebel-held districts, including the densely populated Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood, killed 31 civilians, including three children, according to the British-based monitor, which relies on a network of sources on the ground.

An AFP correspondent said every building in sight in Bustan al-Qasr had had its windows blown out. “The planes have set every eastern neighbourhood on fire today,” one resident told AFP.

The International Committee of the Red Cross warned that Aleppo city was “on the brink of humanitarian disaster”.

“Wherever you are, you hear explosions of mortars, shelling and planes flying over,” said Valter Gros, who heads ICRC s office in Aleppo. “There is no neighbourhood of the city that hasn t been hit. People are living on the edge. Everyone here fears for their lives and nobody knows what is coming next.”

And the UN s Jan Eagland, who heads an international humanitarian taskforce for Syria, also warned that the “catastrophic deterioration” of the situation in Syria in recent days threatened aid deliveries to millions.

Late on Wednesday, government air strikes hit a hospital and nearby block of flats in the rebel-held Sukkari neighbourhood, killing 30 people, the civil defence group known as the White Helmets told AFP.

Among the dead was the last paediatrician still working in rebel areas of the city.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which had been supporting the hospital, condemned the strike which it said killed 14 people.

“MSF categorically condemns this outrageous targeting of yet another medical facility in Syria,” said Muskilda Zancada, the medical charity s head of mission in Syria.

“This devastating attack has destroyed a vital hospital in Aleppo, and the main referral centre for paediatric care in the area. Where is the outrage among those with the power and obligation to stop this carnage?”

A rescue worker said 10 of the dead were so badly disfigured they could not be identified.

The Aleppo violence has raised fears for the ceasefire in other areas of Syria and called into question the future of UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva that have now gone into recess.

De Mistura said the truce was “in great danger” and could collapse “at any time”.

He said the United States, which supports some rebel groups, and regime ally Russia needed to act, calling on them to organise a high-level Syria meeting before negotiations resume.