By Lisa Barrington and Tom Perry
BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian army said it had taken control of an important district in rebel-held eastern Aleppo on Saturday after fierce fighting, with rebels blaming intense air strikes and lack of hospitals for their collapsing frontline.
Government forces advanced with a ground and air assault on the edge of the besieged eastern half of the city, a move the rebels say is designed to split their most important urban stronghold in two.
Aleppo, which was Syria’s biggest city before the start of a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, is divided between the government-held west and rebel-held east, where U.N. officials say at least 250,000 people are under siege.
Capturing all of Aleppo would be a major victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after six and a half years of fighting.
The army said in a statement it had, alongside its allies, taken full control over the Hanano housing district, which is on the northeast frontline of the eastern sector.
“Engineering teams are removing mines and improvised explosive devices planted by terrorists in the squares and streets,” the statement said. The Syrian government calls all forces fighting against it terrorists.
An official in an Aleppo rebel group said a map circulated by pro-government media showing government forces in control of the Hanano area was largely accurate.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring organization based in Britain, said the army had established control over Hanano, which was the first part of Aleppo taken over by armed opposition groups in 2012.
A renewed air assault on residential and frontline parts of east Aleppo began last Tuesday after a weeks-long pause in air strikes and shelling there.
“The revolutionaries are fighting fiercely but the volume of bombardments and the intensity of the battles, the dead and the wounded, and the lack of hospitals, are all playing a role in the collapse of these frontlines,” said an official from Jabha Shamiya, one of the biggest groups fighting against Assad in northern Syria. Some of its members are fighting in Hanano.
He condemned the “international silence” and said the government and its allies were trying to exploit the period before the next U.S. administration took over.
“The Iranians, Russians and regime know there is a vacuum and they are trying to exploit it using all means,” he said. “We are in touch with the friendly states but unfortunately Aleppo is being left to be slaughtered.”
Yasser al-Yousef, from the political office of the Nour al-Din al-Zinki rebel group, said insurgents had fought fiercely for more than 48 hours to defend Hanano and the southern front of east Aleppo from heavy government bombardment.
A Syrian state television reporter broadcast live from a part of Hanano on Saturday as government forces sought to establish full control over the area. Gunshots could be heard and behind him damaged buildings and rising smoke could be seen.
Rebels say much of Hanano has been empty of residents for some months.
Syrian state media said the army had secured the safe passage of at least 150 people out of Hanano, and showed pictures of people it said were evacuated residents in a reception center.
In the 12 days since the renewed bombardment on east Aleppo, at least 201 civilians, including 27 children, have died in the besieged sector, the Observatory said. There were 134 rebel fighter deaths.
The monitor also documented 19 civilian deaths, including 11 children, and dozens of injuries as a result of rebel shelling of government-held west Aleppo. Rebel shelling into the Sheikh Maqsoud district, which is under the control of the Kurdish YPG militia, has killed three people, it said.
Syrian state news agency SANA said three people died and 15 were injured on Saturday when rebels fired rockets into government-held west Aleppo.
(Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Tom Perry; Editing by Helen Popper and Mark Trevelyan)