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Syria army retakes over half of rebel east Aleppo

Aleppo (Syria: Syria’s army advanced overnight deeper into east Aleppo where it now controls more than half of the former rebel stronghold after a fierce assault that has sparked an international outcry.

Tens of thousands of civilians have fled eastern neighbourhoods of the battered city since President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began its latest offensive in mid-November.

Overnight, government troops and allied forces seized the district of Tariq al-Bab where heavy fighting had raged a day earlier, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said today.

The government has now recaptured around 60 percent of eastern parts of the city that the rebels overran in mid-2012, according to the Britain-based monitor.

The advance opens the road leading from the government- controlled west of the city to the international airport just outside Aleppo to the east, which is also held by the regime.

And it has prompted more civilians to flee, heading either further south into remaining rebel-held districts or crossing into government-held territory or areas under Kurdish control.

Assad’s forces have made swift gains in east Aleppo, and its loss would be the biggest blow yet to Syria’s opposition in the more than five-year-old war.

More than 300,000 people have been killed since the conflict started with anti-government protests in March 2011, and over half the country’s population has been displaced.

The government has trumpeted its advances, and state television today showed buses full of residents going from west Aleppo back to their homes in neighbourhoods retaken by the army.

More than 300 civilians have been killed in the government’s assault on east Aleppo since November 15, according to the Observatory.

The monitor says nearly 65 civilians have been killed in the same period by rebel fire on government-held west Aleppo, including nine yesterday.

Rebels have struggled to hold back government ground forces, who have advanced backed by air strikes, barrel bombs and artillery fire.

Yesterday, they rolled back some regime gains in the Sheikh Saeed district on Aleppo’s southeastern outskirts, but it was unclear how long they could hold that line.

Sheikh Saeed borders the last remaining parts of Aleppo still in rebel hands – a collection of densely populated residential neighbourhoods where thousands have sought refuge from advancing regime forces.

In preparation for street-by-street fighting in these districts, hundreds of fighters from Syria’s elite Republican Guard and Fourth Division arrived in Aleppo yesterday, the Observatory said.