Syrian troops advance in central Aleppo near old quarter
BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian government forces captured a central rebel-held neighborhood in Aleppo on Tuesday after a week of blistering airstrikes, as a military official vowed that the offensive would continue until insurgents are "wiped out."
Syrian state TV said troops captured Farafra, near Aleppo's famous citadel, and that fighting was underway near the historic core of the northern city.
Aleppo, Syria's largest city and former commercial center, has been fiercely contested since rebels captured several eastern neighborhoods in 2012. Those neighborhoods are now under siege, and over the past week have endured the worst aerial onslaught since the start of the war, with more than 200 people killed and several buildings flattened.
The battle for the city still appears to be mired in stalemate. Government forces captured the Handarat area on the northern edge of Aleppo over the weekend, only to lose it hours later.
The contested historic quarter of Aleppo, one of the world's oldest cities, is home to the Umayyad Mosque, a UNESCO world heritage site. The 11th-century minaret of the famed mosque collapsed in April 2013 during fighting.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria, confirmed that government forces are advancing on the old quarter.
"There was intense shelling earlier. It seemed the (government) was preparing for the attack," said Ibrahim Alhaj, a member of the Syrian Civil Defense, volunteer first responders also known as the White Helmets. He added that news from the front line suggests a large mobilization of pro-government militias in the old city.
Alhaj and activist Yassin Abu Raed, who is based outside the city, said rebels were able to repel the offensive. Abu Raed said five troops were killed in the fighting. Alhaj said the house of his parents was shelled earlier Tuesday, but that he was able to rescue them and bring them to his own home.
The latest escalation came after a weeklong cease-fire brokered by the U.S. and Russia unraveled, which each side accusing the other of violating the agreement.
A Syrian military official in the capital, Damascus, said operations in Aleppo will continue until the "terrorists" in the eastern parts of the city are "wiped out." The official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.