BEIRUT — Syrian insurgent groups launched a fresh offensive Saturday seeking to break a government siege on rebel-held neighbourhoods in the northern city of Aleppo, opposition activists and state media said. The militants claimed they had achieved their goal while state media denied that the blockade has been breached.
An unnamed military official told state news agency SANA that “large numbers” of militants had attacked the military college in southern Aleppo, adding that government forces were defending the sprawling base. SANA said the militant offensive was preceded by a number of car bombs that struck the area.
Shortly before sunset Saturday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees said that militants were able to reach besieged areas. The Observatory said that although the militants outside the city did reach rebel-held neighbourhoods of eastern Aleppo, civilians still don’t have a safe route to leave because of intense airstrikes and shelling in the area.
Syrian state TV said the attack was repelled and the army has regained control of areas it lost earlier in the day at the military college. It added that government forces targeted militants as they retreated from the area.
Such conflicting claims are not uncommon in Syria when offensives are underway. The militants have launched several attacks over in recent days to try and break the siege.
The government completely closed the main road into the rebel-held areas of Aleppo on July 17, effectively besieging the neighbourhoods. The United Nations estimates that between 250,000 and 300,000 residents have been trapped in the besieged, eastern part of Aleppo since mid-July.
The UN and numerous relief organizations have warned of a looming humanitarian catastrophe as conditions there deteriorate.
The powerful ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group, which is taking part in the offensive along with several other factions, posted a video that showed what it said were its fighters inside the college known as the Artillery Academy. An Ahrar al-Sham fighter in the video claimed that militants are in full control of the college showing destroyed tanks and artillery pieces captured by the gunmen. Ahrar al-Sham’s coalition includes the Levant Conquest Front, al-Qaida’s branch in Syria which recently renamed itself and announced its separation from the global al-Qaida organization.
“It is only a matter of hours before we break the siege imposed on our brothers in Aleppo,” an Ahrar al-Sham fighter said in the video as gunfire could be heard in the background.
The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other Associated Press reporting of the events.
A State TV reporter in the area said the fighting was intense inside the college. The Lebanon-based Pan Arab TV station Al-Mayadeen, that has reporters on the government side of the city, reported that Syrian government reinforcements are being sent into conflict zone.
The military college is located about 1.6 kilometres (1 mile) from the besieged opposition areas.
Earlier Saturday, activists said predominantly Kurdish fighters are now in control of most of a stronghold of the Islamic State group in northern Syria after a push under the cover of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.
The Observatory said Syria Democratic Forces are in control of most of the town of Manbij amid fighting in northern neighbourhoods and the town’s centre.
Mustafa Bali, a Syria-based Kurdish activist, said that IS still holds some areas in Manbij, including the major northwestern neighbourhood of Sarab.
Bali said “it’s a matter of time” before SDF fighters capture the town.
If Manbij is captured by SDF, it will be the biggest strategic defeat for IS in Syria since July 2015, when the extremists lost the border town of Tal Abyad.