(REUTERS) – Rebels said on Tuesday they repelled a Syrian army offensive in southern Aleppo as Russian and Syrian warplanes continued to pound residential areas in besieged parts of the city where thousands of civilians are trapped.
They said they inflicted losses on pro-government fighters after several hours of clashes on the fringe of Sheikh Saed district, at the southern edge of the rebel-held eastern half of Aleppo city.
“We repelled their attempt to advance in Sheikh Saed and killed 10 regime fighters and destroyed several vehicles,” said a fighter from the Failaq al-Sham rebel group who gave his name as Abdullah al-Halabi.
Pro-government media said the army was pressing ahead in a major campaign supported by Iranian-backed militias and Russian air power to take full control of the divided city after a ceasefire collapsed last month. State television said insurgent shelling killed five people in government-held areas of the city on Tuesday.
The army offensive is backed by an air campaign by President Bashar al-Assad’s government and its allies that has hit hospitals, destroyed infrastructure and caused hundreds of civilian casualties.
Another rebel commander from the Nour al-Din al-Zinki group said the army opened several fronts simultaneously to stretch the rebel forces, and dropped leaflets from helicopters calling on them to surrender.
After securing the strategic Handarat camp in the northern edge of the city last Thursday following what rebels described as carpet bombing, the army pressed on south of the camp.
It took the ruins of the former Kindi hospital, from where soldiers could control the Jandoul traffic circle, a major road intersection. “They leveled the ground and our people had no choice but to retreat under the bombing of the Russians,” the Zinki commander said.
Rebels say Kurdish YPG militia controlling the strategic Sheikh Maqsoud district in north Aleppo city have also taken advantage of the army gains to move toward the Shuqayyif industrial area that lies between Handarat and their enclave.
That would allow the army and its allied militias to move deeper into rebel-held northern districts of the city, although rebels expect the army thrust will slow in residential areas that offer them more cover from air raids.
“The battles inside the city’s districts as the regime applies more pressure will be difficult as these areas are better defended and will allow the rebels to hold out,” said Halabi.
In the heart of the city, war planes believed to be Russian and flying at high altitude hit Bustan al Qasr, Hay al Huluk and Fardous neighborhoods with reports of casualties, several rebel contacts said.
In the Aleppo countryside, Russian and Syrian war planes dropped incendiary bombs on the towns of Darat Izza and al-Zirba.
Separately, rebels fighting Islamic State militants said they killed at least 30 militants after a failed attempt to gain ground in Eastern Qalamoun area, north of Damascus, where fighting has escalated in recent weeks.