Syrian army recovers positions southwest of Aleppo city
BEIRUT (AP) Syrian troops repelled a rebel advance near Aleppo on Monday, forcing opposition forces to retreat from positions they seized a day earlier as heavy fighting continued in the country’s largest city.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu meanwhile said Moscow and Washington, which back opposite sides in the civil war, are edging closer to an agreement to defuse the fighting in the contested city.
“Step by step, we are nearing an arrangement, I’m talking exclusively about Aleppo, that would allow us to find common ground and start fighting together for bringing peace to that territory,” he said in remarks carried by Rossiya 24 television.
Russia has been launching airstrikes in support of President Bashar Assad’s forces for nearly a year, and Syrian and Russian warplanes have stepped up their raids in recent days in Aleppo and the rebel-held Idlib province nearby.
The Islamic State group meanwhile claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that struck a bus transporting rebels through a border crossing between Syria’s opposition-held Idlib province and Turkey late Sunday, killing more than 30 fighters.
The Atmeh border post is one of several crossings Syrian rebels use to bring in fighters and supplies. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the death toll from the bombing rose to 32.
A coalition of insurgent groups led by Syria’s rebranded al-Qaida branch launched an assault on government positions in Aleppo on Sunday. Fath al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front, recently changed its name and said it was severing ties with the global terror network in an apparent attempt to evade Russian and U.S.-led airstrikes.
Russia and the U.S. have been discussing closer coordination in Syria, but they have been unable to reach agreement on which militant groups should be targeted.
Fighting in Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial capital, has intensified in recent weeks. Rebels captured the eastern part of the city in 2012 and have been locked in a brutal stalemate with government forces since then.
The rebel assault on Sunday targeted army positions at a cement factory southwest of Aleppo. But opposition activists and militant websites said Monday that the insurgents retreated following a massive government counterattack.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war through a network of activists on the ground, said at least 35 rebels were killed in the fighting.
A Syrian military official said the Syrian air force launched “precise airstrikes on groupings and movements of terrorist groups south and west of Aleppo” that resulted in the death of dozens of “terrorists.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
The Syrian government describes all armed groups fighting to topple Assad as terrorists.
On Monday, the International Committee for the Red Cross called the battle for Aleppo “one of the most devastating urban conflicts in modern times.”
“No one and nowhere is safe. Shell-fire is constant, with houses, schools and hospitals all in the line of fire. People live in a state of fear,” ICRC president Peter Maurer said in a statement from Geneva.
The aid group urged combatants to agree to regular humanitarian pauses to restore essential services and deliver relief.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman on Monday called on Russia to exert its “great influence on the Syrian president” to alleviate the suffering in Aleppo, and criticized Moscow’s offer of a daily truce in the city.
Spokesman Steffen Seibert said Russia’s promise of three-hour cease-fires to allow humanitarian aid into Aleppo “is meant to sound like a concession, but is actually cynicism, since everyone knows that this time is nowhere near enough to really restore supplies to desperate people.”
Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.