The Syrian army and its allies fought intense clashes with rebels in opposition-held areas of Aleppo on Tuesday, as the government began what appeared to be a three-pronged ground assault following days of devastating air attacks on civilian areas.
Syrian government forces were reported to have taken the al-Farafra area, which is part of the central Old City, “After neutralising many terrorists… units are now demining the area,” a military source told the AFP news agency.
The Syrian army also advanced around the 1070 Apartments and al-Hamadania districts, in the southwest of the city. The 1070 Apartments are located next to Ramussa, the southern gateway into Aleppo. The area’s capture would allow the government to ease its own access into the city while consolidating a siege on rebel-held districts.
There were also reports of Syrian forces in the largely deserted Handarat Palestinian camp, north of Aleppo.
The fighting comes days after the Syrian government announced it would launch a “comprehensive offensive” against the city, with aerial bombardments followed by a major push by ground forces, in answer to the collapse of a ceasefire brokered by Russia and the US.
Pro-government forces were also mobilising in two other areas near the rebel-held Sheikh Saeed district on the city’s southern outskirts.
“They are working to expand on any opening they create,” an official from an Aleppo-based rebel faction told Reuters, citing reports from his fighters. “Today, the other noticeable thing is the heavy use of helicopters and barrel bombs.”
Separately, an Iraqi militia commander fighting in support of the government told Reuters a large army force, led by an elite unit known as the Nimr, or Tigers, had started to move in armoured vehicles and tanks for an attack on eastern Aleppo.
NATO head Jens Stoltenberg said air attacks on civilian areas over the last few days were “morally totally unacceptable” and urged Russia to take concrete steps to restore a ceasefire.
“The appalling attacks on Aleppo have shaken all of us, and the violence and the attacks we have seen, also on an aid convoy, is morally totally unacceptable and is a blatant violation of international law,” Stoltenberg told reporters on Tuesday.
A source inside a rebel-held area told Middle East Eye that the Syrian and Russian air forces had continued their furious bombardment of the city – devastating parts of the Mashhad district in the south of the city.
“We have the helicopters in the sky as well as warplanes, they raid nearly all the time,” the source said. “There is horrendous devastation in Mashhad district as it was bombed this morning.
“People still go out to fetch some food every day, schools are all closed despite the term beginning. Hospitals are overcrowded with patients, and they call every day for blood donations.”
AFP reported a five-storey building was levelled with a family stuck inside in al-Shaar.
One young girl, her body encased in rubble, was among the dead. Her father, in shock as rescue workers picked up her lifeless body, collapsed beside, saying: “She’s just sleeping. She’s just used to sleeping.”
The Syrian government had also begun to drop leaflets on rebel-held areas in the east of the city, warning rebels they were facing destruction, and civilians that they must move to government-held areas or face the coming offensive.
The first leaflet warns rebel fighters that they will be next, and shows the portraits of rebel leaders recently killed in clashes, struck through with red crosses.
The second leaflet, from the “state ministry of national reconciliation”, assured residents in rebel-held areas: “There are no boundaries between us, break fears within you and come back to your normal life… you are a partner in our country, we are waiting for you.”
The leaflet offers a telephone number for civilians to contact to organise their evacuation.
There have been no reports of civilians crossing into government held areas, despite intolerable conditions and days of relentless bombing.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) meanwhile called on Tuesday for the sick and wounded in the eastern parts of the city to be evacuated through safe corridors for treatment.
“WHO is calling for the immediate establishment of humanitarian routes to evacuate sick and wounded from the eastern part of the city,” spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said in Geneva.
“We are talking about only 35 doctors left in east Aleppo to take care of hundreds of wounded people, and the number is increasing,” she added.
Syrian doctors said on Monday they were in dire need of medical and surgical supplies to treat hundreds of wounded people among a trapped population of some 300,000.
The Syrian doctors said at least 40 wounded people needed to be evacuated from eastern Aleppo, but most wanted to be sent to rebel-held areas or abroad, not to the government-controlled western side of the city.