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Fall of Aleppo: Thousands flee as Assad forces take 90 percent of rebel areas

In less than a month, a blistering offensive by Syria's army and allied militia has overrun most of rebel territory in the city
Civilians wait outside a government military police centre to visit relatives, who were evacuated from eastern Aleppo (AFP)

Syria's army seized a major district on Aleppo's southeastern edges on Monday, putting it in control of 90 percent of areas once held by rebels in the city.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said forces loyal to Assad took the Sheikh Saeed district after fierce clashes which continued from Sunday afternoon.

READ: What will happen when Aleppo falls

"The army is now in full control of Sheikh Saeed," Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP, adding that "Syrian regime forces are now in control of 90 percent" of the one-time rebel areas in Aleppo's east.

Late on Monday, Arabic media reports said government forces summarily executed tens of civilians in newly captured neighborhoods.

The Assad government is being propped up by Russian air strikes and Iran-supported Shia militias drawn from across the region.

"We managed to take full control of the Sheikh Saeed district. This area is very important because it facilitates access to al-Amariya and allows us to secure a greater part of the Aleppo-Ramousah road," a Syrian official told Reuters, referring to the main entry point to the city from the south.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Monday he is alarmed by unverified reports of atrocities against a large number of civilians, including women and children in the city.

"The Secretary-General is conveying his grave concern to the relevant parties. He has instructed his Special Envoy for Syria to follow up urgently with the parties concerned," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement.

Meanwhile, UN humanitarian adviser on Syria Jan Egeland said in a tweet that the Syrian and Russian governments must be held responsible for atrocities committed by militias loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo.

"The Gov'ts of Syria & Russia are accountable for any and all atrocities that the victorious militias in Aleppo are now committing!," Egeland tweeted, as Assad's forces bombarded the last rebel-held pocket of besieged eastern Aleppo.

'They want to kill us, not to save us'

Residents in rebel-held neighbourhoods who contacted Middle East Eye spoke of their fear, desperation and anger.

Shadi, a teacher, who lives with his wife and five children in east Aleppo, said his friend was killed while crossing the "so-called 'humanitarian corridors'" and that his father had been arrested. The Russians, he said, were trapping people and killing them like rats.

"My wife has been crying for days," he said. "The other night the bombings were very strong and she told me, 'Shadi, we are about to die. Why they are doing this? Why are they so cruel?' And I do not know what to answer.”

Monther, who was training as an optician before the war, explained his family’s dilemma: stay and face death or escape and run the risk of being captured by Syrian government forces.

He currently lives with his wife and four-month-old son, who cries constantly, has not been outside of their home for a month and lives under a tent of blankets to keep him warm.

"Why should I run away?” he asked. “This is my home. I believed in the protests. I believed in a better future for Syria, in a free country. I had the courage to stand up for my rights. But our uprising has become something else. It has become a dirty war against the people."

He said that Russian air strikes had not stopped, even when Moscow said they had.

- Monther, Aleppo resident

“They want to kill us, not to save us. And they were able to do all this with the complicity and the guilty silence of Western governments.”

Rania, a mother of four, said she divides her children between two homes come bedtime so if “a house is bombed and the other is not, then maybe one of my sons can be saved".

Everyone in Aleppo, she said, is waiting their turn to die, be it under rubble or through starvation. "We will die of hunger, but we will not be not tortured," she vowed. “It’s a story we have already seen, and I fought for it not to happen again. Running away into the arms of the regime means giving up."

"I'll stay here until the end, I'm not going to those who killed my family, my friends. I will not go down in history with the message that Assad and the Russians saved me."

Bilal Abdul Kareem, a journalist trapped in eastern Aleppo, told MEE that communications could be cut off at any time.

"The regime is pushing forward and things are as bad as can be," he said.

Aleppo citizen journalist Hadi Alabdallah called on rebel soldiers to desert from their commanders and "do something" to at least ensure a safe exit for civilians from Aleppo.

Alabdallah said asking the UN or Arab leaders for help at this point is futile because they have done nothing except expressing concern and sadness for Syrians.

"What is happening is unimaginable. We have tens of families staying in the streets under the rain and under the shelling. There are corpses in the streets," he said in a video message posted on Twitter. "We have tens of martyrs and wounded people. And we have 100,000 human beings besieged inside besieged Aleppo."

In the same video, an activist who appeared with Alabdallah, described a "massive humanitarian catastrophe" facing civilians trapped in the shrinking rebel territories. He said one bomb could cause a huge massacre because of the density of the population in east Aleppo. 

Bombardment does not stop

Aleppo, Syria's most populous city before the war, has been divided since 2012 between government forces in the west and rebel groups in the east.

In less than a month, a blistering offensive by Syria's army and allied militia has overrun most of rebel territory in the city, shrinking it by more than three quarters during the last two weeks and restricting the rebels to a handful of neighbourhoods.

A military source told Reuters that pro-Assad forces have made several more advances in east Aleppo since taking Sheikh Saeed, and that they are now also in full control of al-Shahideen, a housing estate, Karam al-Effendi, Karam al-Daadaa and Salaheen, and are currently pushing into neighbouring districts.

Swathes of the country nevertheless remain in rebel hands, and on Sunday the Islamic State (IS) group retook Palmyra.

Air strikes pounded the remaining opposition-controlled districts of Aleppo through the night and into the early morning Monday, the Britain-based Observatory said.

"The bombardment did not stop for a moment overnight," a Reuters journalist in government-held west Aleppo said, describing the air campaign as the most intense for days.

Syrian government forces have made strong gains in eastern Aleppo in the past few weeks (AFP)

At least 413 civilians have been killed in east Aleppo since the offensive began on 15 November, the Observatory said, and 139 killed in rebel rocket fire on the city's west.

SANA, the official Syrian news agency, also reported the fall of Sheikh Saeed, and that more than 3,500 people left at dawn.

More than 10,000 civilians have fled eastern parts of Aleppo during the past 24 hours for districts of the city under the control of Syria's government, a monitor said on Monday.

READ: Starvation in Aleppo: 'I just hope to die and disappear from this world'

It takes to about 130,000 the number of civilians displaced since regime forces launched an offensive to retake the rebel-held east in mid-November, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Observatory director Rahman said the advance has left some neighbourhoods of the battleground northern city empty of civilians.

Russia's defence ministry said on Monday that 728 Syrian rebels had laid down their weapons over the previous 24 hours and relocated to western Aleppo. The defence ministry also said that 13,346 civilians left rebel-controlled districts of Aleppo over the same period.

More than 300,000 people have been killed since Syria's conflict first erupted in March 2011.

Russia: No deal with US on rebels

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Sunday that Moscow had not reached an agreement with the United States for rebel fighters in Syria's Aleppo to have safe passage out of the city, RIA news agency reported.

Rebel officials told Reuters earlier on Sunday that a proposal had been made by the two countries for fighters to leave the city with their families and other civilians.

'This agreement has not yet been reached, largely because the United States insists on unacceptable terms'

- Sergei Ryabkov, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister

"What Western agencies are reporting does not necessarily correspond with reality," Ryabkov said, adding that Russia was working to create the necessary conditions for the safe extraction of people from Aleppo.

"The issue of withdrawing militants is the subject of separate agreements. This agreement has not yet been reached, largely because the United States insists on unacceptable terms," RIA quoted him as saying.

Talks between Russian and US experts will continue in Geneva, he said, adding: "There is some progress, but no agreement."