(Adds rebel comment, background, details)
AMMAN/BEIRUT, Sept 5 The Syrian army and its
allies, backed by Russian air power, are keeping up a heavy
bombardment of insurgent positions in and around Aleppo, rebels
said on Monday, pressing to complete their recapture of the
city's strategic southern gateway.
After re-imposing a siege on rebel-held eastern Aleppo with
an advance in the city's southwest on Sunday, the army and its
allies now aim to block the insurgents from bringing in
reinforcements, a Syrian military source said.
The city, Syria's largest before the war, has become the
most important front for both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
and his allies and for the rebels seeking to bring him down.
The battle is complicating efforts to establish a ceasefire
in Syria, more than five years after the country's civil war
broke out. Russia and the United States said on Monday talks on
a truce continued, although U.S. President Barack Obama said
they "haven't yet closed the gaps" separating them.
But Syria's Assad is relying on Russian airpower in its
Aleppo campaign, while the United States backs the rebels - or
some of them - who are trying to overthrow him. A ceasefire
agreed in February collapsed as Washington accused Assad's
forces of violating the truce.
The latest fighting centres on a military complex at
Ramousah that the rebels captured last month after an advance by
insurgent groups from Idlib, 55km (34 miles) to the southwest.
Their capture of the complex broke a month-long siege of
rebel-held east Aleppo, a siege that is resuming as the
government forces reassert control of the area
The military source said the army and its allies were
working to widen their control near Ramousah's military
"Now the army's belt of control is being widened," the
military source told Reuters. "All positions where terrorists
are located to the west of Aleppo and south of it are being
attacked, because this area is a priority for the army, given
that Idlib is the human resources store (for the rebels)."
A rebel commander from the powerful Ahrar-al-Sham group said
fighters had pulled back to new defence lines to reduce losses
in the face of heavy artillery shelling and aerial bombardment.
"The Russians have intensified their bombing. We decided to
retreat," said Abu Omar, adding his fighters were digging in on
new defence lines that would allow them to ambush troops.
Even before Sunday's advance, the army's capture two weeks
ago of the Tal Um Qaraa hilltop had disrupted the rebel corridor
into eastern Aleppo, stopping large shipments of essential
supplies, two council members in insurgent-held districts said.
"They fired at civilians and anything that moved. This led
to slower traffic, but after their gains yesterday traffic is
completely paralysed," said Mohammed Aref al-Sharfi, a member of
the opposition-run Aleppo Province's local council.
Prices inside rebel-held parts of the city have gone up
ten-fold, with no new supplies brought in for 12 days because of
Russian air strikes and Syrian army bombardments, said Brita
Hagi Hassan, president of the city council for eastern Aleppo.
Escalating Russian bombing of their supply lines from Idlib,
the source of most opposition reinforcements, had exposed rebel
positions in Ramousah, where they are still entrenched, two
insurgents there said.
An operation in northern Syria backed by Turkey, meant to
drive out Islamic State and Kurdish fighters from border areas,
may also have diverted fighters who would otherwise have been
defending Aleppo, some rebels said.
Syrian state television throughout Monday broadcast grisly
footage showing the mangled, dust-smeared remains of rebel
fighters around southwest Aleppo, and of the rubble-strewn
districts captured by the army.
However, rebels said the Jaish al-Fateh coalition of mostly
Islamist insurgent groups was preparing to counter-attack and
that reinforcements were arriving for what they predicted would
be a protracted battle.
On Monday, there was a large suicide bombing and fighting in
a government-held part of al-Amariya district north of Ramousah,
where rebels said they had advanced into several buildings and
supporters of the army said it had repulsed an attack.
"The Syrian regime knows the language of force and with its
jets uses scorched-earth bombing so its troops then advance and
take territory. But can they hold on to it?" said Abu Abdullah
al-Shami, a rebel from the Failaq al-Sham group.
(Reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi, Tom Perry and Laila Bassam;
Editing by Angus McDowall, Alison Williams and Larry King)