Fierce fighting has broken out in the Syrian city of Aleppo as rebel groups launch a new offensive to break the government’s siege of opposition-controlled areas.
At least 20 armed groups have united for the offensive against Bashar al-Assad’s forces, including Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra) and other Islamist divisions, as well as Turkmen and Free Syrian Army brigades.
Footage showed heavy gunfire, mortars and explosions as dark smoke was seen rising above the city and jets flew overhead.
Syrian state media said government forces had repelled the rebel offensive to the south and south-west of the city, quoting military sourcing accusing the groups of “synchronising” with an alleged Isis assault on an air force academy to the east.
“The Syrian army and its allies are in control on the ground and armed groups were not able to change the map,” the Syrian army said in a statement. “Fighting is still ongoing but the intensity dropped.”
But rebel groups claimed they had seized control of several districts, advancing on regime territory in western Aleppo.
Footage claimed to show huge suicide bomb blasts and fierce battles against government troops in devastated suburbs of the divided city.
The assault started with rebels detonating three vehicle bombs at regime posts in the south-west and launching volleys of rockets, monitors said.
Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which changed its name after claiming to cut ties with al-Qaeda earlier this year, claimed credit for two of the “martyrdom” missions, saying one was carried out by a French jihadi.
The Islamic Front coalition said its Ahrar al-Sham faction targeted a military airport to the east of Aleppo with Grad rockets and destroyed a government position to the west of the city.
At least 15 civilians were killed in the rebel bombardment, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, with more than 100 wounded and clashes continued around the city.
The state-controlled Sana news agency said at least seven civilians had been killed by rebel shelling on government-controlled areas and 70 others injured.
Ammar Sakkar, military spokesperson for Fastaqim Union rebel group in Aleppo, said hundreds of fighters were taking part in the offensive.
“All the revolutionary factions, without exception, are participating in the battle,” he told the Associated Press.
The Jaish al-Fatah Islamist alliance led a previous offensive to break the siege of Aleppo earlier this year, fighting through regime territory to reach rebel-held eastern districts for the first time in months, but the fighters were soon pushed back by a government counter-attack.
Besieged civilian areas have since been intensively bombed by Syrian and Russian jets, prompting international condemnation and an investigation into possible war crimes by the UN.
Humanitarian agencies estimate that 275,000 people are trapped inside eastern Aleppo with dwindling supplies of food and medicine.
President Assad’s forces and his backers implemented a temporary pause on air strikes under intense pressure earlier this month but as the new rebel offensive started, the Russian defence ministry said it asked Vladimir Putin for permission to resume the campaign.
The battle came as the Russian, Syrian and Iranian foreign ministers met in Moscow in the wake of international condemnation of air strikes that killed 22 children at a school.
The Russian defence ministry previously said that Syrian and Russian warplanes had not bombed Aleppo in the past 10 days and claimed civilians and rebels wishing to leave the city can do so via humanitarian corridors.
The city, once the most populous in Syria, has been divided between government and opposition control since 2012, becoming a symbolic battleground in the country’s brutal civil war.
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