ALEPPO (AFP) – Syria’s regime and rebels were locked in fierce fighting Sunday on Aleppo’s western edges, where 38 civilians have been killed in an opposition offensive to break a devastating government siege.
Rebels have unleashed a salvo of rockets, car bombs, and shells to break through government lines and reach the 250,000 people living in the city’s east.
Syrian state media on Sunday accused them of firing shells containing toxic gas into government-controlled districts.
State news agency SANA reported that 35 people were suffering from shortness of breath, numbness, and muscle spasms after “toxic gases” hit the frontline district of Dahiyet al-Assad and regime-held Hamdaniyeh in Aleppo.
The head of Aleppo University Hospital, Ibrahim Hadid, told state television that “36 people, including civilians and combatants, were wounded after inhaling toxic chlorine gas released by terrorists.”
Syria’s second city, Aleppo has been ravaged by some of the heaviest fighting of the country’s five-year war, which has killed more than 300,000 people.
Intense fighting on Sunday rocked the western districts, battered by hundreds of rebel rockets and artillery shelling, according to Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Two days of such heavy rebel bombardment have killed 38 civilians, including 14 children, and wounded another 250, according to the Britain-based Observatory.
In a new toll Sunday, it said fighting had also killed 55 regime and allied fighters, as well as 64 Syrian rebels.
About 1,500 rebels have massed on a 15-kilometre (10-mile) front along the western edges of Aleppo since Friday, scoring quick gains in the Dahiyet al-Assad district but struggling to push east since then.
“The advance will be from Dahiyet al-Assad towards Hamdaniyeh,” said Yasser al-Youssef of the Noureddin al-Zinki rebel faction.
‘Massive, coordinated’ assault
Hamdaniyeh is a regime-held district directly adjacent to opposition-controlled eastern neighbourhoods.
Fighting lasted all night and into Sunday, with air strikes and artillery fire along the western battlefronts heard even in the eastern districts, an AFP correspondent there said.
Plumes of smoke could be seen snaking up from the city.
A pro-regime military source told AFP that the rebel assault was “massive and coordinated” but insisted it was unable to break into any neighbourhoods beyond Dahiyet al-Assad.
“They’re using Grad missiles and car bombs and are supported by foreign fighters in their ranks,” he said.
Those waging the assault include Aleppo rebels and reinforcements from Idlib province to the west, among them the jihadist Fateh al-Sham Front, which changed its name from Al-Nusra Front after breaking ties with Al-Qaeda.
Aleppo’s front line runs through the heart of the city, dividing rebels in the east from government troops in the west.
Much of the once-bustling economic hub has been reduced to rubble by air and artillery bombardment, including barrel bombs — crude unguided explosive devices that cause indiscriminate damage.
In late September, government troops launched an assault to recapture all of the eastern rebel-controlled territory, backed by air strikes from Russia, which began an air war in 2015 to support President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
That onslaught spurred massive international criticism of both Moscow and Damascus.
Last week, Russia implemented a three-day “humanitarian pause” intended to allow civilians and surrendering rebels to leave Aleppo’s east, but few did so.
Moscow says it will continue a halt on air strikes over Aleppo, in place since October 18.