Rebels in the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo continued to fight on Saturday in the few remaining sections of the city under their control as Syrian government forces aided by Russian air cover continued a campaign to drive them from their strongholds. 93 percent of the country’s most populous city has now returned to government control, according to a Reuters report citing the Russian Ministry of Defense.
Civilians in Aleppo evacuated the rebel-held neighborhoods of the city as best they could as Syrian government forces shelled those areas with artillery fire, ABC reported. Heavy fighting continued in the southern portions of the city, where the remaining rebel forces have consolidated as government forces backed by Russia have made significant advances in retaking it. Civilian casualties have occurred on both sides in the battle for Aleppo, including nine citizens killed by rebel mortar fire against government-held areas in recent days.
The civilians moving away from the neighborhoods that have yet to be taken are reportedly moving en masse into the government-controlled neighborhoods of Aleppo, where facilities have been set up to attempt to deal with the influx of citizens fleeing from the fighting. The exact number of those who have evacuated the war-torn areas is unclear, but could be as high as 80,000. Major General Igor Konashenkov, official spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Defense, has stated that Russian military groups on the ground in Aleppo are working to provide displaced civilians with much-needed medical care and supplies until more permanent arrangements can be made.
Included in the efforts to retake Aleppo may have been a chemical weapons attack by the government forces of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Bombs equipped with toxic chlorine gas were reportedly deployed into one of the rebel-held areas of Aleppo early on Saturday morning. These reports have yet to be verified due to the heavy fighting in the areas that were allegedly affected.
As the battle for Aleppo nears its end, another assault in Syria has forced the government to divert military units from the siege of the rebel-held neighborhoods. According to a Reuters report, a counterattack by Daesh (better known as the Islamic State) on the Syrian city of Palmyra had necessitated the removal of troops from Aleppo. The city, a major political and commercial center of Syria since the Roman period of its history, had previously been taken back from Daesh after a long campaign that involved both Syrian government troops and heavy Russian air support.
Between the allocation of troops to defend against the new threat to Palmyra and the heavy fighting in the areas of Aleppo still held by the rebels, advances on the part of troops loyal to Assad have slowed considerably. Rebel leaders continue to state that they are not prepared to give up or retreat from their current positions, although it is widely agreed upon that the fight for Aleppo is entering its final stages. Russian and Syrian statements have attributed the slowdown of ground operations in Aleppo to a conscious decision on the part of the coalition forces there to allow civilians an opportunity to evacuate into the government-held portions of the city.
Meanwhile, efforts are being made to secure a peaceful return to government control. U.S. and Russian diplomats are set to meet to discuss the path forward for the rebel groups in Aleppo, many of which have received backing from the United States throughout the six-year Syrian Civil War. According to a report compiled by the BBC, the United Nations General Assembly voted on Friday to request a ceasefire in Aleppo, though no such ceasefire has so far been planned or implemented. In a statement on Saturday, outgoing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry echoed the wishes of the General Assembly, calling on the Russian and Syrian coalition to negotiate for a ceasefire in Aleppo, according to CNN.
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