By Tom Perry
Syrian government forces seized ground from rebels north of Aleppo on Saturday, tightening their siege on the city’s opposition-held east as it came under fierce air strikes in a major offensive by the Russian-backed army.
The capture of the Handarat camp a few kilometres north of Aleppo marked the first major ground advance by the government in an offensive that rebels say has unleashed unprecedented firepower against their half of the city.
The captured area, elevated ground overlooking one of the main roads into Aleppo, had been in rebel hands for years.
“Handarat has fallen,” an official with one of the main Aleppo rebel groups told Reuters. An army statement confirming the advance said “large numbers of terrorists” had been killed.
Dozens of people have been reported killed in eastern Aleppo since the army announced the new offensive late on Thursday, burying any remaining hope for reviving a ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia.
Residents of rebel-held eastern Aleppo say it is being subjected to the most ferocious bombardment of the war.
Rebel officials said heavy air strikes on Saturday hit at least four areas of the opposition-held east, home to more than 250,000 people. Rebels say the strikes are mostly being carried out by Russian warplanes.
The attack has drawn on ordnance more destructive than anything previously used against the area and many buildings have been destroyed, residents say. Images of blast sites show craters several metres wide and deep.
“There are planes in the sky now,” Ammar al Selmo, the head of Civil Defence in the opposition-held east, told Reuters from Aleppo on Saturday morning. “Our teams are responding but are not enough to cover this amount of catastrophe.”
A Syrian military source told Reuters the operation announced late on Thursday was continuing according to plan.
Asked about the weapons being used, the military source said the army was using precise weapons “suitable for the nature of the targets being struck, according to the type of fortifications”, such as tunnels and bunkers, and “specifically command centres”.
A senior official in an Aleppo-based rebel faction, the Levant Front, told Reuters the weapons appeared designed to bring down entire buildings.
“Most of the victims are under the rubble because more than half the civil defence has been forced out of service,” he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based organisation that reports on the war, said it had documented 47 deaths since Friday, including five children. Selmo said the toll was more than 100.
“The raids are intense and continuous,” Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman told Reuters.
The Syrian army says it is targeting rebel positions in the city and denies hitting civilians.
“Every missile makes an earthquake we feel regardless of how far off the bombardment is,” one Aleppo resident said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a revival of a ceasefire in Syria depended on all sides involved and not only on “Russia’s unilateral concessions”.
“One can only speak about the ceasefire revival only on the collective basis,” he said in an interview for the TV news show Vesti on Saturday.