A rebel alliance has launched a wave of attacks aimed at recapturing the northern city of Aleppo. But Damascus has dismissed reports that rebels broke its siege of the city, saying the army has discovered a "new route."
The "Army of Conquest," a coalition of rebels and jihadists including the former al-Nusra Front, said in a statement Sunday it would "double the number of fighters for this next battle."
The group said it planned to "liberate all of Aleppo" from government troops after its success in reopening a route into besieged eastern neighborhoods, where an estimated 250,000 civilians are trapped.
The statement added that the group "will not rest until we raise the flag of the conquest over Aleppo's citadel."
Syrian rebels control eastern Aleppo while the regime forces of President Bashar al-Assad hold western areas of the country's largest city.
Heavy fighting continues
The rebels on Sunday came under intense air attack from pro-government forces trying to repel their advance, which saw the rebels break through a strip of regime-controlled territory and end a monthlong siege of the only remaining open route into the northern city.
"We have now seized full control of the Ramousah area... We are in our trenches, but there are insane air strikes of unprecedented ferociousness. The regime is using cluster and vacuum bombs," said Abu al Hasanien, a senior commander in Fateh Halab, a coalition of moderate rebel groups inside the city.
Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the breaking of the siege was one of the most significant setbacks for government forces since the conflict erupted in March 2011.
"Despite more than 600 Russian strikes, the regime forces were not able to hold on to their positions," he said, adding that their troops had been redeployed.
However, Syrian state media denied reports that the siege had been broken.
"Our forces have deployed after absorbing the attack of thousands of mercenaries, and the army has found a new route to allow food and gas in," said state television.
"The air force conducted 21 sorties and struck the terrorists 86 times in south and west Aleppo in the last 12 hours," SANA news agency later added.
No safe passage
Activists said the rebels launched attacks deeper into government-held territory, but there was still no safe passage for residents to escape from eastern districts, amid fears of food and fuel shortages.
Assad, supported by Russian air power, Iranian militias and fighters from Lebanon's Hezbollah group, wants to take full control of Aleppo.
Humanitarian agencies warned that conditions in isolated rebel-held east Aleppo are taking a turn for the worse. The United Nations said collective aid supplies will run out in about two weeks.
ls,mm/bw (AFP, Reuters)