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Syrian army advances in rebel-held east Aleppo

More than 250,000 civilians have been besieged in east Aleppo since July, with food and fuel supplies dwindling
In 10 days, government bombardments killed 196 civilians, including at least 27 children (Reuters)

Syrian army units advanced in Aleppo on Friday, pounding rebel-held eastern neighbourhoods with air strikes and shelling, killing more besieged civilians and adding to the despair of survivors.

Ten days into the offensive to recapture all of Syria's battered second city, government bombardments have killed 196 civilians, including at least 27 children, a monitoring group said.

On Friday, government attacks killed eight civilians, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"There's no work, there's no food, and the bombing is incessant... I want to get out of here by any means possible."

Clashes also rocked Masaken Hanano, east Aleppo's largest district, more than 60 percent of which is now under the control of forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, the monitor added.

State television said the army was advancing into Masaken Hanano "from three axes", calling it the "largest front" in the battle for Aleppo.

Capturing the district could deal a decisive blow to rebels.

More than 250,000 civilians have been besieged in eastern Aleppo since July, with food and fuel supplies dwindling and international aid exhausted.

The Observatory said four children fled on Friday to Sheikh Maqsud, a Kurdish-controlled enclave between the government-held west of Aleppo and the east.

But rebels prevented "dozens of families" from Bustan al-Basha from leaving, it said.

And government raids on two villages west of Aleppo killed at least 15 civilians on Friday, four of them children, said the Observatory.

'No safe place'

Damascus says east Aleppo residents and surrendering fighters are free to leave, but accuses the rebels of using civilians as "human shields".

Residents endured a brutal night of bombardment on Thursday, during which 32 civilians, including five children, were killed.

"I'm terrified by the army's advance and the increasing bombardment," said Abu Raed, a father-of-four from the Fardos neighbourhood. "There's no safe place for me and my family."

Rescue workers in several parts of the east battled to extricate civilians trapped under the rubble of bombed buildings.

In Bab al-Nayrab, an AFP cameraman saw them struggle for more than an hour to pull out a boy who was stuck from the waist down in the rubble, with the back of his head badly gashed.

"Living under these circumstances is unbearable," said 43-year-old Mohammed Haj Hussein, in Tariq al-Bab district.

"There's no work, there's no food, and the bombing is incessant... I want to get out of here by any means possible."

Resident Abu Hussein added: "I don't know what the UN is waiting for. Why don't they at least evacuate the children and women?"

Rocket fire by the rebels has killed at least 18 civilians in the government-held west, 10 of them children, since the government assault began on 15 November, the Observatory said.

UN plan

The UN says it has a plan to deliver aid to Aleppo and to evacuate the sick and wounded, which rebel factions have approved.

But Damascus has yet to agree, and additional guarantees are needed from Assad ally Moscow, UN officials said.

On Thursday, the head of the UN-backed humanitarian taskforce for Syria, Jan Egeland, warned there was no alternative plan to help civilians in east Aleppo.

"In many ways, plan B is that people starve, and can we allow that to happen? No we cannot," he said.

Hundreds of trucks are ready in Turkey and government-controlled west Aleppo to bring food and medicine to eastern neighbourhoods, but the UN needs 72 hours once it has all approvals to prepare a "big, complex and dangerous operation", Egeland said.

"We do now have written approval in principle by the armed opposition groups of east Aleppo," he told reporters, specifying that he was referring to rebels with whom the UN is in contact, which do not include al-Qaeda-linked former Nusra Front militants.

"We have verbal support also from the Russian Federation on our four-point plan. We need written support and we need unconditional support also from Russia and we are waiting still for the answer from the government of Syria."

Also on Friday, an air strike carried out by an unidentified aircraft hit a small maternity hospital in north Idlib province, killing a civilian and putting the clinic out of service, the Observatory said.

Rebel-held areas in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus were also pounded by government forces on Friday, the monitor said.

The charity Doctors Without Borders reported "multiple air strikes" on Eastern Ghouta, adding that the number of wounded "is still being counted."

At least 49 civilians have been killed in government attacks on the rebel stronghold since 17 November, almost half of them children, the Observatory said.