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Government siege of Aleppo broken by Syrian rebels

Heavy fighting continues, with Syrian government and its Russian allies still bombing city

Opposition fighters drive tank in eastern government-besieged neighbourhood of Aleppo (AFP)

Syrian rebel forces have broken the siege of Aleppo that has been in place since mid-July, rebel forces and sources inside the city said on Saturday. 

Heavy fighting was continuing, with the Syrian government and its Russian allies bombing the city almost at “random,” MEE contributor Zouhir al-Shimale in rebel-held east Aleppo said.

Despite the danger, hundreds of people have taken to the streets to celebrate and show support for the rebels, he said.

More than 500 rebel and government fighters have been killed in the latest wave of fighting this week, according to UK-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Islamic Front rebel group - a coalition of Islamic militias that does not include Jabhat Fateh al-Sham group, formerly known as the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda Syria affiliate  – claimed on its twitter feed that it had also taken control of the town of al-Ramouseh, which was on a key supply route to Aleppo blocked by the Syrian government.  

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham were also taking part in the drive to open up a supply line into Aleppo. The offensive began on Monday and saw rebels inside Aleppo try to push south while other rebels pushed north towards the city to try to connect with the break-out bid of their besieged co-fighters. 

State-run news agency SANA admitted that the government has lost ground, but said that airstrikes were working to disrupt rebel supply lines and to isolate them in Aleppo.

Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern Politics at the London School of Economics, told the BBC News Channel that the rebels had certainly made gains.

"The rebels coalition - it's called the Army of Conquest - has basically made some major progress," he said.

"It has been able to score some major gains in the past 48 hours. The question is not whether the opposition has made some progress or not [but] whether they can really maintain the areas that they occupy and whether they can consolidate it."

The breaking of the siege of Aleppo by Syrian rebels is the largest defeat the Syrian government has suffered since Russia intervened last September.

It will also be a strong morale boost for the Syrian rebels, who have been fighting to retake control of Aleppo in spite of heavy shelling and airstrikes carried out by Russian and Syrian government planes. 

The bombing has taken aim at civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, with dozens of health facilities hit by airstrikes in the past week as rebels have fought to break the siege. Since the siege was established on 17 July, hundreds of civilians have been killed, with fears high that Aleppo could become one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes in recent memory.

Allegations have surfaced that the Syrian government has dropped toxic gas, possibly chlorine, onto rebel positions near Aleppo, but Syrian government officials have denied this.

NGOs have also leveled accusations that the government used a "vacuum-bomb," which uses oxygen from the surrounding air to generate an intense, high-temperature blast. The weapon is outlawed by international law.