Syria army announces offensive on jihadist-held Aleppo

Damascus (AFP) – Syria’s army announced the launch Thursday of an offensive to retake the rebel-held east of the battleground city of Aleppo, warning residents to keep away from posts held by anti-regime fighters.

“The military operations command announces the start of operations in eastern districts of the city and calls on residents to stay away from the positions of terrorist groups,” it said in a statement carried by state news agency SANA, using the regime’s term for the opposition.

The announcement came just minutes after the United States and Russia convened a last-ditch meeting in New York to save their Syria ceasefire plan and followed several hours of intensive bombardment that left Aleppo in flames.

The army also said it would take “all measures to facilitate the reception” of civilians and that those who arrive at its checkpoints would not be arrested.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it was “a large scale land offensive supported by Russian air strikes aimed at taking bit by bit the eastern sector of Aleppo and emptying it of its residents”.

The initial targets were the Amiriyah, Sukari and Sheikh Said sectors, to the south, said the monitoring group’s head, Rami Abdel Rahman.

The Britain-based Observatory said earlier that bombardment and air strikes since Wednesday night targeting the rebel-held neighbourhoods of Bustan al-Qasr and Al-Kalasseh had triggered “massive fires”.

The estimated 250,000 residents of east Aleppo, which rebels have held since 2012, have been living under government siege since early September.