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Syrian army preparing to retake Aleppo, prime minister says

Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air power, plan to take Aleppo after their victory in Palmyra two weeks ago
Nusra Front troops holding parts of Aleppo are not included in the 27 February ceasefire accord (AFP)

Syrian government troops are preparing a major operation to retake control of the northern city of Aleppo with Russian air cover, Syria's Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi said on Sunday.

"With our Russian partners, we are preparing an operation to free Aleppo and block all illegal armed groups that have not joined or have broken the ceasefire deal," Interfax news agency quoted Halqi as saying after a meeting with Russian lawmakers in Damascus.

He said regaining control of Aleppo from rebels hostile to President Bashar al-Assad would allow government forces to advance east to Deir Ezzor, some 60 percent of which is under the control of the Islamic State (IS) group.

Damascus has vowed to drive IS out of the area, with the support of its Russian allies, after its recent victory over the group two weeks ago in the ancient city of Palmyra.

Aleppo, formerly Syria's economic capital and the country's second city, has since 2012 been divided into zones held between rebel groups and areas still under government control.

A 27 February truce brokered by the US and Russia, which back opposing sides in Syria's war, does not apply to the fight against al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front and IS, which Damascus is now concentrating on dislodging. 

The two sides have been unable to agree on the fate of Assad, who is supported by Russia and Iran and whose presidency has become a potential sticking point in negotiations on a political transition.

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura was due to arrive in Damascus on Sunday evening and to meet Syrian officials on Monday, Reuters reported. He said last week that he would go to Damascus and Tehran to sound out their position on a political transition before beginning a new round of peace talks in Geneva on Wednesday.

Around Aleppo "the ceasefire has all but collapsed along the main front lines" of the conflict, Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said on Sunday.

The Syrian army said groups that had agreed to the cessation of hostilities had taken part in Nusra Front attacks on government-held positions south of Aleppo, Reuters reported. Free Syrian Army groups, meanwhile, blamed the fighting on government violations.

The Observatory said earlier that 24 hours of clashes around Aleppo had left dead at least 16 pro-government fighters and 19 members of Nusra Front and allied rebel groups.

More than 270,000 people have been killed since Syria's conflict broke out in March 2011.