Pro-government forces yesterday tightened their grip around the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo where the local governor said safe corridors had been opened for civilians to escape rebel-held areas.
A quarter of a million civilians still live in Aleppo’s opposition-controlled eastern neighbourhoods, effectively under siege since the army and allied militia cut off the last road into rebel districts in early July.
State television quoted the governor of Aleppo as saying three humanitarian corridors would be established and President Bashar al-Assad offered an amnesty for rebels who surrender within three months.
Pictures of what appeared to be a leaflet dropped on Thursday showed a map of Aleppo, entitled “Safe exit points from Aleppo city”, with four crossing points out of the rebel areas marked as humanitarian corridors.
The Syrian army said on Wednesday it had dropped thousands of leaflets over opposition-held Aleppo districts, asking residents to cooperate with the military and calling on fighters to surrender.
But two rebels and aid workers contacted in besieged Aleppo said the army fired at civilians at one of the safe corridors, in the Salah Al Din district.
A doctor for a medical charity that operates in Aleppo also said the army had fired artillery at families gathering near another humanitarian corridor, in the opposition-held Bustan Al Qasr neighbourhood.
Hael Asi Hilal, head of the Syrian Red Crescent in rebel-held areas, said no family so far had been able to leave to government-held areas via any corridor due to snipers firing at them.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said helicopters over rebel-held areas dropped baby diapers and meal packs that had Russian language labels.
Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city before the outbreak of the conflict five years ago, has been divided between government forces and rebels since the summer of 2012.
Its recapture would mark Assad’s biggest victory so far in the civil war.
The army, backed by allied militia forces and air support from Syrian and Russian jets, has taken more ground on the northern edge of the city, around the Castello road which leads out towards Turkey.
State television said the army had advanced in the Bani Zeid district, on the southern side of the Castello road.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the pro-government forces had taken full control of the district. A rebel source confirmed that the army had made advances.
He said Kurdish forces from the nearby Sheikh Maqsoud district had also taken advantage of the fighting to advance into a housing complex in Bani Zeid.
“There has been a (rebel) withdrawal, but no one has surrendered,” Zakaria Malahifji of the Aleppo-based rebel group Fastaqim group told Reuters.
Al Nusra announces break with Al Qaeda
The head of Al Nusra Front in Syria said his militant group was breaking ties with Al Qaeda and changing its name, in remarks broadcast yesterday by Al Jazeera.
Abu Mohamad al-Jolani said Al Nusra would change its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Conquest of Syria in Arabic) and expressed his gratitude to the “commanders of Al Qaeda for having understood the need to break ties”.
In a rare televised message, Jolani said the new group “will have no links whatsoever with foreign parties”.
The announcement came a week after US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said they had agreed on “concrete steps” to save a failing Syria truce and tackle groups like Al Nusra and the Islamic State group.
Militant sympathisers and observers have been speculating online about a possible split between Al Nusra and the network founded by Osama bin Laden to which it pledged allegiance in 2013.
Al Qaeda prepared the ground for the announcement earlier yesterday in an online message.
“We direct the leadership of Al Nusra Front to go ahead with what preserves the good of Islam and the Muslims, and protects the jihad of the Syrian people,” Ahmed Hassan Abu al-Khayr said in an audio message released online by Al Nusra.
“We urge them to take the appropriate steps towards this matter,” said Abu al-Khayr, who was identified as a deputy of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
“Whatever Nusra does, its ultimate objective is to further embed itself into Syria’s revolution and secure its long-term future” as a legitimate rebel group, analyst Charles Lister tweeted.
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