ALEPPO, Syria, Aug. 1 (UPI) — Rebels have launched an offensive in an attempt to wrest control of eastern Aleppo from the Syrian government.
The fighting started Sunday night — the eve of the 71st anniversary of the founding of the Syrian army.
The Jabhat Fateh al-Sham group — which was formerly the al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front designated a terrorist group by the U.S. government — and the Ahrar al-Sham group said they quickly seized army positions in the southwestern government-held parts of the city.
The Syrian army confirmed its troops had pushed back rebel fighters from an air force artillery base and denied the rebel alliance had captured the Hikmeh school, which is used by the regime as a military base.
Dozens of soldiers have died so far, including the crew of a Russian helicopter that was shot down about 25 miles south of Aleppo on Monday morning, killing all five people on board.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British organization that monitors the conflict, said at least 18 civilians were killed over 24 hours, including six children. Shells hit the Square of Science Faculty.
Syrian and Russian military had announced safe corridors for residents who wanted to leave the besieged area Thursday, but only 169 civilians had left by Saturday because of fighting in the area, the Russian government said.
The United Nations estimates about 300,000 people are trapped in the area with food and medical supplies dwindling.
In Damascus, Ramzy Ramzy, the United Nations’ deputy special envoy for Syria, urged talks to resume between the government and the opposition.
The Higher Negotiations Committee, which is representing the opposition in peace talks, said the evacuations were an attempt to depopulate the city.
“The world must not allow Russia to get away with disguising its assault on Aleppo with deceitful talk about humanitarian ‘corridors,’ ” Bassma Kodmani, a member of the HNC said in a statement. “Be clear — these ‘corridors’ are not getting aid in, but driving people out. The brutal message to our people is — leave or starve.”
Kodmani urged Russia to “tell the Assad regime to withdraw the forces who cut off the main route in and out only a few days ago.”
The opposition has demanded that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down.