Rebels retreat as Syrian troops take control of eastern Aleppo

Syrian pro-government forces stand next to residents of Aleppo's Sheikh Saeed district yesterday after troops retook the area. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Syrian pro-government forces stand next to residents of Aleppo's Sheikh Saeed district yesterday after troops retook the area. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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The Syrian military said it has gained control of 98 per cent of eastern Aleppo, previously a rebel-held enclave, reducing the rebel territory to a small sliver packed with civilians and fighters squeezed under fire.

A Syrian rebel spokesman said opposition fighters were retreating in eastern Aleppo under intense government fire that is putting thousands of civilians at risk, calling the collapse “terrifying.”

The military statement came hours after Syrian forces, aided by Shiite militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, took Sheik Saeed, one of the largest neighbourhoods in the southern part of the rebel territory, tightening the noose on the enclave.

The military also said its multi-pronged ground push yesterday captured the al-Fardous neighbourhood, one of the most populated districts to the north of Sheik Saeed.

Rami Abdurrahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the district remains under fire and that fighting continues there. He estimated that about seven per cent of the enclave remains under rebel control.

“The situation is very, very critical,” said Ibrahim al-Haj, a member of the Syrian Civil Defence. “The military took many areas and we are now squeezed.” Al-Haj had been on the move to find a place to keep him and his family away from the clashes and possible government capture.

Bassam Haj Mustafa, a senior member of the rebel Nour el-Din el-Zinki group who is in contact with fighters inside the city, said the fighters are doing “their best to defend what is left.”

“The collapse is terrifying,” he said in a message to reporters.

Tens of thousands of civilians have fled to government-held western Aleppo since the offensive began last month. But tens of thousands remain trapped in the ever-shrinking eastern enclave.

A rebel fighter from inside Aleppo, said the fall of Sheik Saeed means the fall of the enclave’s only mill and grains warehouse, which leaves the territory without access to bread or flour.

Most of the remaining civilians have now gathered in two or three neighbourhoods, packing thousands in a small space and threatening large casualty tolls in any new attack, he said.

In a map distributed by the military’s media arm, a small sliver of land, a long rectangular shape in the city centre abutting the western, government-held parts of the city, remained in rebel hands. It includes six neighbourhoods, most of them still areas where fighting is still underway.

A Turkey-based Syrian organisation that supported a number of medical facilities and agricultural projects in Aleppo said it was terminating all its activities in the besieged enclave because all of its eight ambulances have been destroyed.

The Shafak organisation said 47 of its 57 staff are stuck in areas still under rebel control and that it has lost communication with most of them.

The group ran a UN-funded primary health care facility in al-Fardous before it was captured by the government, along with Shafak’s warehouses elsewhere in eastern Aleppo that stored fuel and medical supplies.

Syrian troops backed by Russian airstrikes and militias from across the region launched a wide-scale offensive on eastern Aleppo last month and are on the verge of driving the rebels from the city. Doing so would hand President Bashar Assad his greatest victory yet in the Syrian civil war, now in its sixth year.

The offensive to retake rebel-held eastern Aleppo, which began on November 26, followed an intensive aerial bombing campaign that knocked out most of the eastern sector’s medical facilities, targeted civil defence blocked roads with rubble.