Rebel fighters pressed on with an intense offensive against a major military complex in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Saturday, following gains on Friday, to try to end a siege of opposition-held areas in the city’s east.
Taking control of the Ramousah complex, which contains a number of military colleges, would isolate government-held western Aleppo by cutting the southern route out towards the capital Damascus.
It would also give rebels access to armaments stored in the base, which has been used by the Syrian army in the country’s five-year conflict as a centre from which to shell opposition targets.
On Friday rebels said they stormed the complex’s main base, the Artillery College, but the Syrian army said it had repelled the attack.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the fighting, said rebels on Friday took control of the Weaponry College and part of the Artillery College. They are now fighting for full control of the Artillery College and for control over the Air Force Technical College.
A live Syrian state TV report from the outskirts of the artillery base in Ramousah, southwest Aleppo, broadcast the sound of gunfire, explosions and warplanes flying over.
The state television reporter said the Syrian army had closed the Ramousah road to protect civilians from a rebel advance, and a large number of army reinforcements had arrived.
Videos released by rebel groups claim to show gun battles as insurgents move into buildings in the complex.
The rebels are trying to break through a strip of government-controlled territory to reconnect their encircled sector of eastern Aleppo with insurgent territory in the west of Syria, in effect breaking a government siege begun last month.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wants to take full control of Aleppo, pre-war Syria’s most populous city, which has been divided between rebel and government-held areas. Such a victory would be a crushing blow to the insurgents.
The complex, multi-sided civil war in Syria, raging since 2011, has drawn in regional and global powers, caused the world’s worst humanitarian emergency and attracted recruits to Islamist militancy from around the world.
Some rebel groups are referring to the Aleppo battle as the “Ibrahim al-Youssef Offensive”, a reference to a Sunni army officer said to have led a massacre of cadets at the Artillery College in the late 1970s. The cadets were predominantly from the Alawite sect of Bashar al-Assad and his late father and predecessor as president, Hafez al-Assad.
(Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Andrew Bolton)