'Aleppo is going to die': Syrian army advances into rebel-held parts of the city

Syrian government forces advanced deep into eastern Aleppo on Sunday amid a swift collapse of rebel defences inside the divided northern city, threatening to split the opposition's enclave between its northern and southern parts.

Assad forces close to commanding a corridor in eastern Aleppo for the first time since 2012

A man rides a bicycle amid dust near rubble of damaged buildings after a strike on the rebel-held besieged al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo on Saturday. Syrian forces are advancing into opposition-held areas of the city. (Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters)

Simultaneous advances by Syrian government and Kurdish-led forces into eastern Aleppo on Sunday set off a tide of displacement inside the divided city, with thousands of residents evacuating their premises, and threatened to split the opposition's enclave.

Rebel defences collapsed as government forces pushed into the city's Sakhour neighbourhood, coming within one kilometre of commanding a corridor in eastern Aleppo for the first time since rebels swept into the city in 2012, according to Syrian state media and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

Kurdish-led forces operating autonomously of the rebels and the government meanwhile seized the Bustan al-Basha neighbourhood, allowing thousands of civilians to flee the decimated district to the predominantly Kurdish Sheikh Maqsoud, in the city's north, according to Ahmad Hiso Araj, an official with the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The government's push, backed by thousands of Shiite militia fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, and under the occasional cover of the Russian air force, has laid waste to Aleppo's eastern neighbourhoods.

Thousands trying to escape

An estimated quarter-million people are trapped in wretched conditions in the city's rebel-held eastern districts since the government sealed its siege of the enclave in late August. Food supplies are running perilously low, the UN warned Thursday, and a relentless air assault by government forces has damaged or destroyed every hospital in the area.

Residents in the east of the city expressed distress among opposition circles on social media and in messaging groups that thousands of people were fleeing to the city's government-controlled western neighbourhoods, away from the government's merciless assault, or deeper into opposition-held eastern Aleppo.

​"The situation in besieged Aleppo [is] very very bad. Thousands of eastern residents are moving to the western side of the city," Khaled Khatib, a photographer for the Syrian Civil Defence search-and-rescue group, said on Twitter. "Aleppo is going to die."

The Britain-based Observatory, which monitors the conflict through a network of local contacts, said around 1,700 civilians had escaped to government-controlled areas and another 2,500 to Kurdish authorities.

A girl makes her way through the debris of a damaged site that was hit by airstrikes in the rebel held al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria on Nov.17. (Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters)

More than 250 civilians have been killed in the government's bombardment of eastern Aleppo over past 13 days, according to the Observatory.

Locals reported thousands more were moving within the eastern neighbourhoods, away from the front lines, but staying inside areas of opposition control.

"The conditions are terrifying" said 28-year-old Modar Sakho, a nurse in eastern Aleppo.

Wissam Zarqa, an English teacher in eastern Aleppo and outspoken government opponent, said some families would stay put in the face of advancing government forces.

Syrian state media reported government forces seized the Jabal Badro neighbourhood and entered Sakhour Sunday after it took control of the Masaken Hanano neighbourhood Saturday.

Syrian state TV broadcast a video Saturday showing a teary reunion between a soldier and his family after nearly five years apart, according to the report. It said the family had been trapped in Masaken Hanano.

The Lebanese Al-Manar TV channel reported from the neighbourhood Sunday morning, showing workers and soldiers clearing debris against a backdrop of bombed-out buildings on both sides of a wide avenue. Al-Manar is operated by Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group aligned with the Syrian government.

A city transformed

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces' advance into Bustan al-Basha dealt the opposition a further blow.

Rebels and opposition figures have long accused the SDF and its predecessor groups of conspiring with the government to quash a nationwide revolt.

Araj denied there was any co-ordination between government and Kurdish-led forces.

"We were responding to calls from residents in Bustan al-Basha to secure the neighbourhood," he said. He added the SDF had entered the area handily as rebel militants fled.

Aleppo used to be Syria's largest city and hub of commerce before its neighbourhoods were devastated by the country's more than five-year civil war.

A man rides with his daughter on a bicycle in a rebel-held besieged area of Aleppo. The United Nations says 500,000 children were now living under siege in Syria. (Abdalrhman Ismai/Reuters)

500,000 children under siege

The UN's child agency warned Sunday that nearly 500,000 children were living under siege in Syria, cut off from food and medical aid, mostly in areas under government control. That figure has doubled in less than a year.

Many spend their days underground, as hospitals, schools and homes remain vulnerable to aerial bombardment.

"Children are being killed and injured, too afraid to go to school or even play, surviving with little food and hardly any medicine," said UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake. "This is no way to live — and too many are dying."

A boy stands amid the damage in the rebel-held besieged al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo. The UN says children in Syria are at high risk as hospitals, schools and homes remain vulnerable to aerial bombardment. (/Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters)

15 killed in airstrike

Activists also reported Sunday tens of civilian casualties from a presumed government or Russian airstrike on a village outside Aleppo.

The Local Co-ordination Committees activist network in Syria reported 15 civilians killed in a Russian airstrike on the village of Anjara, controlled by the opposition in the western Aleppo countryside, and tens of others wounded. Activists usually identify planes by their silhouettes and home base.

The Observatory said the strike was accompanied by raids on other opposition-held villages in the Aleppo countryside.

Men ride on a vehicle through dust after a strike in Aleppo's al-Shaar neighbourhood. (Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters)

Meanwhile, Anadolu also reported Sunday that ISIS had used chemical weapons against Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters in northern Syria, wounding 22.

The report cited a statement by the chief of general staff's office. The report could not be immediately verified independently.

Later Sunday, Turkey's emergency relief directorate, which investigated the claim, said it found no trace of chemical warfare. The military was not available for further comment.

Elsewhere in Syria, Israeli aircraft struck a machine-gun-mounted vehicle inside the country Sunday, killing four ISIS-affiliated militants on board after they opened fire on a military patrol on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, according to the Israeli military.