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Almost 10,000 civilians flee Syrian army’s advance into east Aleppo

Capturing all of Aleppo would be a major victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after almost six years of fighting
Syrian opposition fighters try to hold off Assad government forces near Beyanun village of Aleppo, Syria (Anadolu)

Almost 10,000 civilians have fled battered eastern Aleppo towards government-held districts and the Kurdish-controlled neighbourhood of Sheikh Maksoud, a monitoring group said on Sunday, after an advance by the Syrian army and allied forces that rebels fear could split their most important urban stronghold in two.

"Nearly 10,000 civilians have fled east Aleppo since the night of Saturday to Sunday," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. "At least 6,000 of them went to the neighbourhood of Sheikh Maksoud, the rest went to government zones of Aleppo." Government forces retook six rebel-held districts of eastern Aleppo over the weekend, forcing huge numbers of civilians to flee as they pressed their offensive to retake Syria's second city.

The army and its allies took control on Saturday of the large Hanano housing district, on the northeast frontline of the besieged eastern part of Aleppo. On Sunday, the 13th day of the operation, they took control of the adjacent neighbourhoods of Jabal Badra, Baadeeen Inzarat, al-Sakan, al-Shaabi and Ain al-Tall, according to the Observatory. Government forces are now "in control of most of the northern part" of Aleppo, according to the monitoring group.

The advance, accompanied by Russian and Syrian air strikes, has raised fears among the rebels that the northern part of east Aleppo could be cut off from the southern part. That would weaken their control over the east and bring more residents closer to frontlines.

Capturing all of Aleppo would be a major victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after almost six years of fighting that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced 11 million others. The conflict broke out in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests and has since evolved into a complex war involving different factions and foreign powers.

"The army's rapid advance is due to its strategy of attacking east Aleppo on several fronts, weakening the rebels," Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said

"It is the first exodus of this kind from east Aleppo since 2012," Rahman said.

Hanano was the first district the rebels took in the summer of 2012 in a move that divided the city into a rebel-held east and a government-controlled west.

About 250,000 civilians trapped under government siege for months in the east have faced serious food and fuel shortages.

Syrian state television broadcast images of a crowd of civilians including women and children gathered around green buses that it said had come to pick them up in Hanano.

One woman was shown pushing a stroller and many others carried plastic bags on their heads while bombardment could be heard in the distance.

"We left Hanano because of the bombardment from the Syrian army during their advance, and the chlorine gas," Muhammad, who declined to use his full name out of fear for his safety, told Reuters.

He was waiting with his wife, mother and three children at a minibus stop, hoping to travel on to government-held west Aleppo. He said Hanano had contained about 200-300 families, but they had come and gone throughout the war depending on the intensity of strikes.

A 13-month inquiry by the global chemical weapons watchdog and the United Nations concluded that Syrian government forces, including helicopter squadrons, were responsible for the use of chlorine barrel bombs against civilians. Syrian authorities deny having used chemical weapons in the conflict.

Aleppo, which was Syria's biggest city before the war began in 2011, is divided between the government-held west and rebel-held east. UN officials say at least 250,000 people are under siege in the east.

There were fierce clashes in areas adjacent to Hanano, the Observatory, rebel sources and Syrian state media said. Rebel sources say they are fighting back with difficulty in the face of sustained aerial bombardment.

"The revolutionary forces are reinforcing their defence lines on the edges of Hanano, steadfast in the defence of our people in Aleppo ... But the planes have destroyed everything, stones, trees and people, in a systematic policy of destruction," said Yasser al-Yousef, from the political office of the Nour al-Din al-Zinki rebel group.

People are also being displaced internally within east Aleppo. Hundreds are moving south within the besieged sector to avoid being trapped in the smaller northern part should the government split it in two.

"Many people are being displaced from the eastern to the western neighbourhoods of besieged Aleppo. There were about 300 families who moved, but there are families who are exhausted and the army is advancing in a very big way," Ibrahim Abu Laith, an official at the civil defence rescue organisation in east Aleppo, told Reuters from the city.

He said the civil defence was giving aid to those displaced, but the service was coming under extreme strain because of the bombardments and displacements. It has said its supplies and equipment are running very low, with few if any medical centres left to take people for treatment.

The United Nations has a plan to deliver aid to Aleppo and evacuate the sick and wounded, which rebel factions have approved but to which Damascus has not yet agreed. Guarantees are also needed from government ally Russia.

Once a commercial and industrial hub, Aleppo has seen some of the worst fighting in Syria's almost six years of war.