Syria, Russia pound rebel-held Aleppo but advances halt

A man holds the hand of a boy as they flee deeper into the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo,

By Laila Bassam and John Davison

ALEPPO, Syria/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian’s military and Russian warplanes bombarded rebel-held districts of Aleppo on Saturday as Damascus’s allies said victory was near, but insurgents fought back and army advances halted after rapid gains during the week.

The United States said it was meeting a Russian team in Geneva to find a way to save lives, but an agreement looked elusive as the two countries, which back opposing sides, have repeatedly failed to strike a deal to allow evacuations and help aid deliveries.

Russia, whose military intervention helped turn the war in President Bashar al-Assad’s favor, said the Syrian government now controls 93 percent of second city Aleppo, a figure Reuters could not independently verify. Its recapture would deal a major blow to rebels who have fought to unseat Assad in the nearly six-year war.

The insurgents are holed out in a handful of areas mostly south of the historic Old City, having lost nearly three-quarters of territory they controlled for years in the space of around two weeks.

Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah, a key military ally of Damascus alongside Russia and Iran, said late on Friday that a “promised victory” in Aleppo was imminent and would change the course of the war.

The advances mean the government appears closer to victory than at any point since 2011 protests against Assad evolved into armed rebellion. The war has killed more than 300,000 people and made more than 11 million homeless.

A win for Assad in Aleppo looks close, but fighting still raged on Saturday.

Russian warplanes and Syrian artillery bombarded rebel-held districts, and rebels responded with shelling of government-controlled areas as gunfire rang out, a Reuters correspondent in Aleppo said.

Russia and Syria said on Friday they had reduced military operations to allow civilians to leave.

But rebels say their counter attacks are what have halted government advances.

“There’s no advance by the regime. They (rebels) have stopped them several times,” Zakaria Malahifji, a Turkey-based official in the Fastaqim rebel group told Reuters.

Government forces launched an attack in the Izaa area near the Old City early on Saturday which insurgents repelled, destroying an army tank, he said.


Fighting has killed hundreds of people in recent weeks, monitors say, and devastated large areas of Aleppo.

Parts of the UNESCO World Heritage Old City recaptured by the government were completely destroyed by fighting, a Reuters correspondent said. Old markets and bathhouses had been flattened.

“I found my home destroyed,” said one returning resident, who gave only his family name, Sheikho.

“I didn’t even recognize where it was because of the destruction,” he said.

Mohammed Shaaban, standing outside a destroyed church, was also astounded by the destruction.

“A year and a half ago when I last visited there was not this level of damage. I’m shocked and saddened. They destroyed civilization and humanity,” he said, referring to rebels.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said several people were killed in rebel shelling on Saturday. Hundreds have been killed in recent weeks, mostly in government bombardments, it says.

Thousands of people have left rebel districts. Some fled to government-held areas but others went to areas under rebel control fearing arrest and reprisals by government forces.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged Russia to show “a little grace” when American and Russian officials meet in Geneva later on Saturday to try to reach a deal enabling civilians and fighters to leave the besieged city of Aleppo.

“Fighters … don’t trust that if they agreed to leave to try to save Aleppo that it will save Aleppo and they will be unharmed,” Kerry told reporters in Paris after a meeting of countries opposed to Assad.

Germany said Syrian opposition backers were seeking a political solution, but there was no agreement in Paris on reaching a truce.


Russia’s defense ministry said more than 20,000 civilians left eastern Aleppo on Saturday and over 1,200 rebels laid down their arms. The British-based Observatory said hundreds of civilians had left but no fighters surrendered.

Rebel officials have sworn they will never leave.

The army said it reduced operations to allow residents to leave, and that this would enable the military to carry out “wider maneuvers” against insurgents in due course.

Russia’s defense ministry said that after civilians left, government forces would continue to “liberate” eastern Aleppo.

Even once Aleppo is retaken, the multi-sided Syrian war will continue.

The Syrian army said it had sent reinforcements to Palmyra more than 200 kms (130 miles) away to stave off a fierce attack by Islamic State militants, who advanced to the city’s outskirts.

A rebel commander in the Aleppo-based Jaish al-Mujahideen group said the IS offensive had forced the government to divert troops from Aleppo – a possible explanation for the slowed advance there and heavy aerial and artillery bombardment.

The United States, which is leading a separate fight against Islamic State in northern and eastern Syria, said it will send 200 additional military personnel, including special forces to create a pressure against the group’s Raqqa hub.

The fight against Islamic State, being waged separately by the group’s many enemies in Syria – Moscow and Damascus; the U.S. coalition; and some of the same Turkish-backed rebels that are fighting Assad in Aleppo – is just one sign that Syria’s complex conflict will not end with a defeat for insurgents in Aleppo.

(Reporting by Laila Bassam in Aleppo, John Davison in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Alexander Winning in Moscow, William Maclean in Manama, Mostafa Hashem in Cairo; Writing by John Davison; Editing by Louise Heavens)

Mosul residents fear cold and hunger of winter siege

People fleeing Islamic State stronghold in Mosul

By Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – No food or fuel has reached Mosul in nearly a week and the onset of rain and cold weather threatens a tough winter for more than a million people still in Islamic State-held areas of the city, residents said on Saturday.

Iraqi troops waging a six-week-old offensive against the militants controlling Mosul have advanced into eastern city districts, while other forces have sealed Mosul’s southern and northern approaches and 10 days ago blocked the road west.

But their advance has been hampered by waves of counter-attacks from the ultra-hardline Islamists who have controlled the city since mid-2014 and built a network of tunnels in preparation for their defense of north Iraq’s largest city.

The slow progress means the campaign is likely to drag on throughout the winter, and has prompted warnings from aid groups that civilians face a near complete siege in the coming months.

A trader in Mosul, speaking by telephone, said no new food or fuel supplies had reached the city since Sunday.

Despite attempts by the militants to keep prices stable, and the arrest last week of dozens of shopkeepers accused of hiking prices, the trader said food had become more expensive and fuel prices had tripled.

“We’ve been living under a real state of siege for a week,” said one resident of west Mosul, several miles (km) from the frontline neighborhoods on the east bank of the Tigris river.

“Two days ago the electricity generator supplying the neighborhood stopped working because of lack of fuel. Water is cut and food prices have risen and it’s terribly cold. We fear the days ahead will be much worse”.

A pipeline supplying water to around 650,000 people in Mosul was hit during fighting this week between the army and Islamic State. A local official said it could not be fixed because the damage was in an area still being fought over.

Winter conditions will also hit the nearly 80,000 people registered by the United Nations as displaced since the start of the Mosul campaign. That number excludes many thousands more who were forcibly moved by Islamic State, or fled from the fighting deeper into territory under its control.


Islamic State authorities, trying to portray a sense of normality, released pictures which they said showed a Mosul market on Friday. It showed a crowd of people and a stall selling vegetable oil and canned food but no fresh produce.

They also said they carried out several counter attacks in the last 24 hours against Iraqi troops in eastern Mosul and the mainly Shi’ite Popular Mobilisation forces who have taken territory to the west of the city.

Amaq news agency, which is close to Islamic State, said they retook half of the Shaimaa district in southeast of the city on Friday, destroyed four army bases in the eastern al-Qadisiya al-Thaniya neighborhood and seized ammunition from fleeing soldiers in al-Bakr district, also in the east.

A source in the Counter Terrorism Services, which are spearheading the army offensive, said Islamic State exploited the bad weather and cloud cover, which prevented air support from a U.S.-led international coalition.

He said the militants had taken back some ground, but predicted their gains would be short-lived.

“This is not the first time it happens. We withdraw to avoid civilian losses and then regain control. They can’t hold territory for long,” the source said.

Amaq also said Islamic State fighters waged attacks on Saturday against the Popular Mobilisation paramilitary units near the town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, showing footage of two damaged vehicles, one with interior ministry markings on it.

A spokesman for the militias said those attacks had been repelled. “Daesh attacked at dawn to try to control the village Tal Zalat,” said Karim Nouri. “Clashes continued for two hours, until Daesh withdrew, leaving bodies (of dead fighters) behind.”

In Baghdad, a car bomb blew up in a crowded market in the center of the city on Saturday, killing seven people and wounding 15, police and medical sources said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Islamic State fighters have stepped up attacks in the Iraqi capital and other cities since the start of the Mosul operations.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi launched the Mosul offensive on Oct. 17, aiming to crush Islamic State in the largest city it controls in Iraq and neighboring Syria.

The campaign pits a 100,000-strong U.S.-backed coalition of army troops, special forces, federal police, Kurdish fighters and the Popular Mobilisation forces against a few thousand militants in the city.

Defeat would deal a heavy blow to Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate in Iraq and Syria, announced by its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from a Mosul mosque two years ago.

(Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Clelia Oziel)

Mosul edges towards full siege, families struggle to find food

An Iraqi soldier searches a house during clashes with Islamic State fighters in Al-Qasar, southeast of Mosul.

By Maher Chmaytelli and Ulf Laessing

BAGHDAD/MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – A full siege is developing in Mosul as poor families struggle to feed themselves after prices rose sharply following the U.S.-backed offensive on the Islamic State-held city in northern Iraq, humanitarian workers said on Tuesday.

Some of the poorest families are finding it hard to feed themselves while others are hoarding and hiding food as they expect prices to rise further as the battle that started six weeks ago takes hold of the city.

A Kurdish Iraqi woman inspects her destroyed kitchen after returning to her house in the town of Bashiqa which was retaken by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters following a battle with Islamic State militants,

A Kurdish Iraqi woman inspects her destroyed kitchen after returning to her house in the town of Bashiqa which was retaken by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters following a battle with Islamic State militants, north of Mosul, Iraq November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

“Key informants are telling us that poor families are struggling to put sufficient food on their tables,” U.N Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, Lise Grande, told Reuters. “This is very worrying.”

Iraqi government and Kurdish forces surround the city from the north, east and south, while Popular Mobilisation forces – a coalition of Iranian-backed Shi’ite groups – are trying to close in from the west.

Retail prices rose sharply last week, after Popular Mobilisation fighters cut the supply route to Mosul from the Syrian half of the self-styled caliphate, declared by Islamic State two years ago over Sunni-populated parts of Iraq and Syria.

More than a million people are still believed to live in parts of Mosul under the control of the Islamic State fighters, who seized the largest city in northern Iraq as part of a lightning advance across a third of the country in 2014.

With the last supply route cut off, basic commodity prices in Mosul could double “in the short term”, said a humanitarian worker, who declined to be identified.

Some 100,000 Iraqi government troops, Kurdish security forces and mainly Shi’ite militiamen are participating in the assault on Mosul that began on Oct. 17, with air and ground support from a U.S.-led international military coalition.

The capture of Mosul, Islamic State’s last major urban stronghold in Iraq, is seen as crucial towards dismantling the caliphate.


Iraqi forces moving from the east have captured about a quarter of Mosul, trying to advance to the Tigris river that runs through its center, in the biggest battle in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

“In a worst case, we envision that families who are already in trouble in Mosul will find themselves in even more acute need.” Grande said. “The longer it takes to liberate Mosul, the harder conditions become for families.”

Islamic State arrested on Sunday about 30 shop owners accused of raising food prices in the city, to try to suppress discontent, witnesses said on Monday.

The group is relentlessly cracking down on people who could help the offensive in Iraq. Most of the people executed previously in Mosul were former police and army officers, suspected of disloyalty or plotting rebellions against the militants’ harsh rule.

The Iraqi military estimates there are 5,000-6,000 insurgents in Mosul, dug in amid civilians to hamper air strikes, resisting the advancing troops with suicide car bombs and sniper and mortar fire that also kill civilians.

An air strike targeting Islamic State fighters hit a clinic south of Mosul on October 18, killing at least eight civilians, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.


Iraqi and coalition forces did not confirm the report, which said two militants and the Sunni hardline group’s transport minister were also killed in the strike.

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, believed to be somewhere near the Syrian border, has told his fighters there can be no retreat from the city.

Some 74,000 civilians have fled Mosul so far, and the United Nations is preparing for a worst-case scenario which foresees more than a million people made homeless as winter descends and food shortages set in.

A Reuters correspondent in eastern Mosul saw civilians fleeing the fighting in Aden, a district supposed to be under Iraqi government control, in an indication of the difficulty the troops are encountering in holding terrain.

“Daesh is still there,” said Ehab, a high school student, referring to Islamic State by one of its Arab acronyms. “They drive around in cars; the situation is very, very difficult there. I am glad I made it out alive.”

(Writing by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Dominic Evans and Peter Millership)

Hunger and desperation: Aleppo siege tests limits of endurance

A general view shows the damage at a site hit by airstrikes in the rebel-held besieged al-Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – As Syria’s government presses a fierce assault on eastern Aleppo, its siege is making life ever harder for civilians who being forced to sift through garbage for food and scavenge firewood from bombed-out buildings.

With winter setting in, shortages of food, medicine and fuel coupled with intense air strikes and artillery bombardment are testing the limits of endurance among a population the United Nations estimates at 270,000 people.

“People are worn out … there are people today in Aleppo who are eating out of the trash,” said Mustafa Hamami, who lost two of his children and four other relatives when a six-storey apartment building was destroyed this week.

With government forces mounting their most concerted effort yet to capture the rebel-held east, these are the darkest days for the opposition in Aleppo since the beginning of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011.

Backed by Russian air support, the Syrian army and allied Shi’ite militia from Iran, Lebanon and Iraq have gradually blockaded the rebel-held east of the city this year, first cutting the northern lifeline to Turkey and then fully encircling it from the west and south.

Pro-government forces identified as Shi’ite militias by the rebels have in recent days launched a ground attack aiming to split the rebel-controlled territory by seizing areas including Hanano, where fierce battles were underway on Friday.

The fall of eastern Aleppo would be the biggest victory to date for Assad, crushing the rebellion in its most important urban stronghold. Fierce bombardment and air strikes of the area has killed hundreds of people since late September.


A pack of four bread loaves now costs the equivalent of about $3 – at least five times higher than it was before the siege began in July. The city council offers limited quantities at a subsidized price. A kilo of meat costs $50, a kilo of sugar costs $18, both also several times higher than before the siege.

Rice, which is more readily available and has not risen as much, costs $3 a kilo.

“My wife is using boiled rice to feed our 11-month old baby. We can barely get one bottle of powdered milk a month,” said Abdullah Hanbali, who worked as an engineer before the war.

“People are not accustomed to just eating bread and a bit of rice. They are used to eating apples, cucumbers, lemons, butter, meat,” he said, speaking to Reuters from eastern Aleppo via the internet. “The weather is cold. You need nutrition.”

Residents say once-bustling markets are now devoid of shoppers. The few stalls with food to sell offer legumes, radishes, parsley, and other crops grown within the confines of the besieged area.

The United Nations says the last U.N. rations in Aleppo were distributed on Nov. 13. U.N. humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said on Thursday rebel groups had agreed to a plan for aid delivery and medical evacuations, but the United Nations was awaiting approval from Russia and Damascus.

Asked about any “Plan B”, he replied: “In many ways Plan B is that people starve”. He said that could not be allowed to happen.

The government has besieged numerous rebel-held areas of Syria throughout the war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, and the country has become partitioned into a patchwork of zones controlled by various combatants.

A number of the besieged areas near Damascus have succumbed to the government pressure in recent months, with rebels leaving to the northeastern province of Idlib in negotiated agreements with the government.

The desperation in eastern Aleppo has started to surface.

A brawl erupted last week outside the warehouse of a foreign charity that had been forced to suspend its distribution of food aid parcels as its supplies dried up. Two charity workers said people waiting for food had forced it to hand over all the remaining stock.


“None of the charities and NGOs have food parcels to distribute to needy people, and hunger is starting to appear in some families,” said Mohamad Aref Sharifa, a councilor in the opposition-run city council.

“There is dissatisfaction among some civilians, especially in the poorest areas, because there is no work or income and prices are high,” Sharifa added.

The government appears to be hoping that desperation will turn into unrest. The army has called on residents to rise up against rebels it has accused of hoarding food and using civilians as human shields.

But with many residents of eastern Aleppo sympathetic to the opposition and deeply distrustful of Assad, there has been no sign of major unrest targeted at rebel fighters. Many families have relatives fighting with the rebellion.

The commander of one of the biggest rebel groups in eastern Aleppo, the Jabha al-Shamiya, told Reuters this week they planned to set up kitchens in poor neighborhoods to provide residents with at least one meal a day.

“We are also moving toward opening projects to produce methane gas,” added the commander, Abu Abdelrahman Nour.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut; Editing by Tom Perry and Pravin Char)

Syrian rebels launch Aleppo counter-attack to break siege

Iraqi refugees that fled violence in Mosul ride a pick-up truck upon arrival in al-Kherbeh village, in Syria's northern Aleppo province.

By Ellen Francis and Angus McDowall

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian rebels including jihadists began a counter-attack against the army and its allies on Friday aiming to break a weeks-long siege on eastern Aleppo, insurgents said.

The assault, employing heavy shelling and suicide car bombs, was mainly focused on the city’s western edge by rebels based outside Aleppo. It included Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a former affiliate of al Qaeda previously known as the Nusra Front, and groups fighting under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) banner.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitor, said more than 15 civilians had been killed and 100 wounded by rebel shelling of government-held western Aleppo. State media reported that five civilians were killed.

There were conflicting accounts of advances in areas on the city’s outskirts.

Aleppo, Syria’s biggest pre-war city, has become the main theater of conflict between President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Iran, Russia and Shi’ite militias, and Sunni rebels including groups supported by Turkey, Gulf monarchies and the United States.

The city has been divided for years between the government-held western sector and rebel-held east, which the army and its allies put under siege this summer and where they launched a new offensive in September that medics say has killed hundreds.

Photographs showed insurgents approaching Aleppo in tanks, armored vehicles, bulldozers, make-shift mine sweepers, pick-up trucks and on motorcycles, and showed a large column of smoke rising in the distance after an explosion.

Rebels said they had taken several positions from government forces and the Observatory said they had gained control over a checkpoint at a factory in southwest Aleppo and some other points nearby.

But a Syrian military source said the army and its allies had thwarted what he called “an extensive attack” on south and west Aleppo. A state television station reported that the army had destroyed four car bombs.

Abu Anas al-Shami, a member of the Fateh al-Sham media office, told Reuters from Syria the group had carried out two “martyrdom operations”, after which its fighters had gone in and had been able to “liberate a number of important areas”. A third such attack had been carried out by another Islamist group.

A senior official in the Levant Front, an FSA group, said: “There is a general call-up for anyone who can bear arms.”

“The preparatory shelling started this morning,” he added.

Heavy rebel bombardment, with more than 150 rockets and shells, struck southwestern districts, the Observatory said.


Fateh al-Sham played a big part in a rebel attack in July that managed to break the government siege on eastern Aleppo for several weeks before it was reimposed.

Abu Youssef al-Mouhajir, an official from the powerful Ahrar al-Sham Islamist group, said the extent of cooperation between the different rebel factions was unusual, and that the largest axis of attack was on the western edge of the city.

“This long axis disperses the enemy and it provides us with good cover in the sense that the enemy’s attacks are not focused,” he said.

The powerful role played by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, listed by many countries as a terrorist group, has complicated Western policy toward supporting the anti-Assad opposition.

The United States has prevented more powerful weapons such as anti-aircraft missiles from being supplied to rebels partly out of fear they could end up in jihadist hands.

The Syrian military source said Friday’s attack had been launched in coordination with Islamic State, a group against which all the other rebels, including Fateh al-Sham, have fought.

A tank for rebel fighters drives in Dahiyat al-Assad west Aleppo city, Syria October 28, 2016.

A tank for rebel fighters drives in Dahiyat al-Assad west Aleppo city, Syria October 28, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

Islamic State fighters did clash with the Syrian army on Friday at a government-held airbase 37km (23 miles) east of Aleppo, next to territory the jihadist group already controls, the Observatory reported.

Syria’s civil war, now in its sixth year, has killed hundreds of thousands of people, displaced half the country’s pre-war population, dragged in regional and global powers and caused a refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe.

Mouhajir, the Ahrar al-Sham official, said cloudy weather was helping to reduce the aerial advantage enjoyed by the Syrian military and its Russian allies. Inside Aleppo, tyres were also burnt to create a smokescreen against air strikes.

Grad rockets were launched at Aleppo’s Nairab air base before the assault began said Zakaria Malahifji, head of the political office of the Aleppo-based Fastaqim rebel group, adding that it was going to be “a big battle”.

The Observatory also said that Grad surface-to-surface rockets had struck locations around the Hmeimim air base, near Latakia.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry, Writing by Angus McDowall, Editing by Angus MacSwan/Tom Perry)

Intensifying fight for Aleppo chokes civilian population

A Free Syrian Army tank fires in Ramousah area, southwest of Aleppo, Syria

By John Davison

BEIRUT (Reuters) – An upsurge of intense fighting around Aleppo has killed dozens of Syrians in the past weeks, displaced thousands and cut water and power to up to two million people on both sides of the front line, worsening the already dire conditions faced by hundreds of thousands in the city.

In a war already marked by humanitarian crisis, the United Nations says the fighting threatens to replicate deprivation recently suffered by those in rebel-held eastern districts of Aleppo among civilians living in the government-held west.

Advances by warring sides in the last month, which resulted in a siege of rebel-held neighborhoods and the severing of a major route into government areas of control, have choked off supplies and raised fears of the encirclement of the entire civilian population.

Syria’s largest city pre-war has been divided into government and rebel areas of control for much of the conflict, and has been the focus of escalating violence since a ceasefire brokered by Washington and Moscow in February crumbled. Its capture would a major prize for President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia’s intervention last year helped turn the war in Assad’s favor. His forces with the help of Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian fighters surrounded the eastern, opposition-held neighborhoods in Aleppo in July.

The latest major gains were made by rebels, however, who broke the month-long government siege in an attack last week on a Syrian military complex and also cut the main supply route to the western, government-held areas of the city.

“When the attack began … rockets and shells were fired toward Hamdaniya,” said Abu George, a resident who fled that neighborhood, close to the military complex in the southwest of the city.

“There were people who had already been displaced sheltering in nearby areas, they had to leave,” the 61-year-old agricultural engineer said via telephone.

Rebel bombardments of Hamdaniya on Wednesday killed more than a dozen people, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said. Syrian and Russian warplanes have launched heavily raided the areas taken by insurgents.

The British-based group said bombardments by both sides have killed more than 120 people in the city since the beginning of August.

Abu George is among thousands who fled areas in southwest Aleppo in recent days, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“Thousands of families have been displaced from southwestern Aleppo, including already displaced families who’ve had to move for a second time,” spokeswoman Ingy Sedky said.

Residents of western Aleppo said cutting the main supply route to the government side had slowed the entry of goods and fuel and driven up food prices, but a delivery by government forces via an alternative route this week provided some relief.

“There were some problems with petrol and fuel, but supplies came in and the petrol stations are open and working,” Tony Ishaq, 26, said via internet messenger.

The alternative route used was until last month the only road into Aleppo’s opposition held sector. After intense bombardment, government forces captured the Castello Road in an advance that put eastern Aleppo under siege.


The siege worsened an already dire humanitarian situation in eastern Aleppo, residents and doctors said.

The rebel advance which broke through the siege on Saturday has not yet secured a safe enough passage to make more than one food delivery to the east, or for civilians to move through, with government bombardments hitting that rebel corridor on the city’s southwestern outskirts.

“Fuel, vegetables and other essentials are not entering because the regime is bombing areas it lost like crazy,” said Hossam Abu Ghayth, a 29-year-old east Aleppo resident.

“There are warplanes and helicopters hovering in the skies, they’re bombing both civilian areas and the major front lines,” he said via internet messenger.

International medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres, which supports a number of medical facilities in the opposition held sector, said the casualty toll had risen sharply.

“Because of the bombings and the fighting in Aleppo city there are more and more people coming to the hospitals,” Middle East Operations Manager Pablo Marco told Reuters.

Hospitals were having to cope with dozens of wounded arriving at the same time, he said, with only 35 doctors for the whole of east Aleppo’s population at least 250,000 people.

All eight hospitals supported by MSF have been affected by bombardments in recent months, Marco said. A U.S.-based rights group says several hospitals were hit in July.

The bombardments have compounded water and power cuts on both sides of the city.

East Aleppo residents have long experienced a lack of both.

“There’s no electricity – there are generators which provide a small amount, enough to work a fridge or lighting,” Abu Ghayth said.

“We wash once every Friday. We’ve got used to living this way,” he said. “We economize water so it lasts.”

Entire families often survive on 50 liters of water per day, transported from tanks or drawn from wells, he added. The World Health Organization says 20 liters are needed per person for basic hygiene.

The United Nations said on Tuesday the main power facility that allowed water to be pumped to both sides of the city had been hit, leaving the entire population of nearly 2 million without running water and putting children at risk of disease.

Sedky of the ICRC said residents were relying on underground water sources.

“The water pumping stations are not working anymore, on boths sides. So the whole population has been relying on boreholes for water,” she said.

Fetching water from those boreholes in some areas was dangerous, with movement restricted because of bombardments and fighting, Sedky added.

Wells and tanks would not provide enough water for very long, she said.

The U.N. has called for an urgent humanitarian ceasefire in Aleppo, and is pushing for a resumption of peace talks that have failed to end the five-year conflict in which more than 250,000 people have been killed and some 11 million displaced.

(Reporting by John Davison)

Aleppo Rebels brace for long Syrian government siege

People walk on the rubble of a site hit by a barrel bomb in the rebel held area of Old Aleppo, Syria July 11, 2016.

By Tom Perry and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – Rebel areas of Aleppo have stockpiled enough basic supplies to survive months of siege by Syrian pro-government forces that cut off their half of the city last week, even though some goods are running out, an opposition official said.

Government forces backed by allies including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Russian air force advanced last week to within a few hundred meters (yards) of the only road into the rebel-held part of Aleppo, making it impassable for the several hundred thousand people living there.

The advance has brought Damascus closer to achieving its long-held aim of encircling rebel districts of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a potent symbol of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad now in its sixth year.

Rebel forces are fighting back in an attempt to reopen the Castello road. The opposition does not expect the Syrian army and its allies to storm the populous, rebel-controlled sector of Aleppo, and is preparing for the possibility of a long siege.

Russian officials said Moscow was there to help Damascus in its fight because the road had been used to supply armed groups, but the United States urged Russia to put pressure on the Syrian government to cease its onslaught.

With prices rocketing in Aleppo, opposition authorities were seeking to ration consumption to prevent hoarding and prevent traders from overcharging, said Brita Hagi Hassan, president of the city council for opposition-held Aleppo.

He said opposition authorities were also moving towards opening “alternative ways” into the rebel-held part of the city.

“We have the capability to open new ways because the situation is still under control,” Hassan told Reuters. The plans were secret, he added, speaking from a rural area west of Aleppo after twice failing to enter the city last week.

Prices of non-perishable staple foods have tripled and fresh produce has gone up by even more, if it can be found at all. A kilo (2.2 pounds) of tomatoes, which are now in season, costs at least five times more than they did before the blockade.


The city council has stockpiled flour, wheat, fuel, sugar and rice, and residents were being urged to adapt to the new situation, Hassan said. “I reassured people on this matter … we can remain for several months without a problem.

“There are posters, pamphlets and there will be a press conference about this matter, so that the people are aware of the new situation, because the situation is very bad.”

Operators of generators had been told to cut back their use to two hours a day, and the council had set aside fuel for essential uses such as bakeries.

As part of their counter-attack, rebels bombarded government-held neighborhoods of Aleppo, where the population is estimated at slightly over 1 million people. Air strikes have also targeted rebel areas of the city.

“The streets are abnormally quiet after several barrel bombs hit our neighborhood. People are waiting,” said Malek Idrees, a father of five who lives in a rebel district.

“I could not find fresh produce for the last two days … but there are no severe shortages … most goods (are) still in the markets. I could not find bread yesterday,” he said.

The United Nations said it was worried about increased fighting in and around Aleppo and called for humanitarian aid access and the safe and rapid evacuation of civilians.

U.N. spokeswoman Alessandra Vellucci said that intensified hostilities had cut off 300,000 people. Hassan estimated the population in the rebel zone to be 400,000.

Assad is backed by Moscow, which launched air strikes in September, as well as by Iranian and Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah fighters. Hezbollah has said it regards Aleppo – Syria’s pre-war commercial hub – as the most important battleground in the country, equating it with the defense of the capital Damascus.

“The fact is that the (Castello) road has been very actively and heavily used to supply various terrorist groups,” Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said on Tuesday. “Clearly in that kind of a situation, the government has to fight back and we’re there to help them in this regard.”

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told a U.N. Security Council meeting Assad’s bid to encircle eastern Aleppo would have “potentially devastating consequences.

“Russia, as a co-sponsor of the cessation of hostilities, should use its influence on the regime to help stop these attacks,” Power said, referring to a truce agreed in February that subsequently unraveled.

Assad’s allies say they are battling the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front in Aleppo. But Western-backed nationalist insurgents loosely grouped under the banner of the Free Syrian Army say they control the rebel-held part of the city.

Nusra Front said it and the Nour al-Din al-Zinki insurgent group had fought back and advanced in an area near the Castello road late on Tuesday. There was no immediate Zinki comment.

(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations and Mostafa Hashem in Cairo; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)