Assad forces close to retaking Aleppo

Syrian government troops are close to retaking the city of Aleppo, which has suffered substantial damage from Russian bombing  Picture: Alexander Kots/Komsomolskaya Pravda via AP

Syrian government troops are close to retaking the city of Aleppo, which has suffered substantial damage from Russian bombing Picture: Alexander Kots/Komsomolskaya Pravda via AP

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GOVERNMENT forces have gained more ground against rebels in Syria’s biggest city – as pressure mounted on Russia over the number of civilians dying in the country’s air strikes.

Troops are said to have almost encircled rebels in the northern city of Aleppo in the wake of a pledge by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to retake “the whole country.”

Reports from state television and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed the forces had captured Tamoura and were now overlooking the town of Hayan and parts of the town of Anadan.

The latest condemnations of the airstrikes – led by the United States and France – sparked a warning from Russia’s prime minister Dmitry Medvedev that the world is heading toward a “new period of Cold War.”

Government troops have been advancing under cover of intense Russian air strikes with the aim of besieging rebel-held parts of Aleppo.

The fall of the rebel-held side of Aleppo would be the biggest blow to the opposition since the war began. Rebels believe Russia wants the fighting to continue as long as possible to allow troops to encircle the city.

The Syrian army also looked poised to advance into the Islamic State-held province of Raqqa for the first time since 2014, apparently to pre-empt any move by Turkey and Saudi Arabia to send ground forces into Syria to fight the jihadist insurgents.

The United States and Russia have announced a plan to halt the violence within the next few days, although the “cessation of hostilities” deal agreed on Thursday falls short of a formal ceasefire. Assad has insisted he backs the talks but has also declared that negotiations do “not mean that we stop fighting terrorism”.

Rebel groups in Syria have expressed scepticism about the deal and say they will not stop fighting because they do not believe that Russia will end its bombing campaign in support of the government.

More than 250,000 people have been killed and some 11 million displaced after almost five years of fighting in Syria.

Some Syrian cities have been cut off from humanitarian aid for more than a year because of fighting. About 13.5 million people are in need of aid, according to the United Nations.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims more than 200 children have been among 1,015 civilians killed in air raids since September.

Speaking at a security conference in Munich, the US Secretary of State John Kerry said: “The vast majority of Russia’s attacks have been against legitimate opposition groups. Russia’s targeting must change.”

However Medvedev said: “There is no evidence of our bombing civilians, even though everyone is accusing us of this.”

He said that Russia was “not trying to achieve some secret goals in Syria”, adding that “we are trying to protect our national interests”.

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