Civilian toll in fight to break Aleppo siege appals UN

Syria's regime and rebels engaged in fierce fighting Sunday in Aleppo's western edges, where 41 civilians have been killed in an opposition offensive the UN warned could amount to war crimes. Rebels have unleashed car bombs and salvos of rockets and shells to break through government lines and reach the 250,000 people besieged in the city's east. Syrian state media on Sunday accused...

al-monitor Rebel fighters from the Jaish al-Fatah (or Army of Conquest) brigades get in a vehicle in the neighbourhood of Dahiyet al-Assad, southwest of Aleppo, on October 29, 2016 after they retook control of the area Photo by Omar Haj Kadour/AFP.

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Oct 1, 2016

Syria's regime and rebels engaged in fierce fighting Sunday in Aleppo's western edges, where 41 civilians have been killed in an opposition offensive the UN warned could amount to war crimes.

Rebels have unleashed car bombs and salvos of rockets and shells to break through government lines and reach the 250,000 people besieged 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.

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".

Two days of heavy rebel bombardment have killed 41 civilians, including 16 children, and wounded 250, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.1

The rebel offensive in Aleppo (photo by: Thomas SAINT-CRICQ, Sabrina BLANCHARD/AFP)

The civilian toll was slammed by UN peace envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, whose office said he was "appalled and shocked by the high number of rockets" fired by rebels.

"Those who argue that this is meant to relieve the siege of eastern Aleppo should be reminded that nothing justifies the use of disproportionate and indiscriminate weapons, including heavy ones, on civilian areas and it could amount to war crimes," his office said in a statement.

Civilians 'have suffered enough'

"The civilia

ns of both sides of Aleppo have suffered enough due to futile but lethal attempts of subduing the city of Aleppo," De Mistura said.2

Smoke billows from the frontline district of Dahiyet al-Assad in the northern city of Aleppo on October 29, 2016 following an attack by rebels on Syrian regime forces (photo by: Karam al-Masri/AFP)

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 western districts, battered by hundreds of rebel rockets and artillery fire, according to Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

In a new toll Sunday, the monitor said fighting had also killed 55 regime and allied fighters, as well as 64 Syrian rebels.

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 rising from the city.

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.

3

Syrians carry their belongings on October 30, 2016 as they leave Aleppo's southwestern neighbourhood of Dahiyet al-Assad, on the third day of a rebel offensive to break a three-month regime siege on the opposition-held east of Syria's second city (photo by: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP)

"The advance will be from Dahiyet al-Assad towards Hamdaniyeh," said Yasser al-Youssef of the Noureddin al-Zinki rebel faction.

Hamdaniyeh is a regime-held district directly adjacent to opposition-controlled eastern neighbourhoods.

An AFP correspondent saw about a dozen civilians, including women and children, fleeing Dahiyet al-Assad on Sunday.

'Massive, coordinated' assault

They brought belongings stuffed into plastic bags, hoisting them on top of their heads or dragging them along the dusty road.

A pro-reg

ime 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 engaged in 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 forces in the west.

Much of the once-bustling economic hub has been reduced to rubble by artillery and air bombardment, including barrel bombs -- crude unguided explosive devices that also kill indiscriminately.

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 its air strikes over Aleppo, in place since October 18.