Middle East

Syria Aleppo siege: Government forces 'roll back rebel gains'

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Media captionRebels from the Free Syrian Army released footage of a huge explosion in the Ramouseh district

Government forces have reportedly gained ground after a rebel offensive in the Syrian city of Aleppo.

Intense fighting has continued since the weekend, when rebels started trying to break a government siege of rebel-held areas.

The army has been fighting back with the help of Russian air strikes to stop the rebels breaking through.

About a quarter of a million civilians are living under siege since government forces cut them off last month.

On Wednesday, Russian state television ran pictures of civilians and fighters leaving the city through so-called humanitarian corridors. The network RTR says seven such corridors are currently open.

Smoke was seen billowing over the city in the footage, and gunshots were heard, as fighting continues in what is expected to be a decisive battle for the city's future.

Vehicles bearing the Red Crescent logo were clearly visible.

Over the weekend, the rebels tried to reconnect an encircled area in the east with insurgent territory in the west.

They set off a huge tunnel bomb underneath army positions in the strategic Ramouseh district.

But by midweek, activists were saying the Syrian government's forces had recaptured territory.

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Media captionA resident in the rebel held area of Aleppo says 25-30 people are dying every day

'No food and daily attacks' - Aleppo resident tells BBC of fight for survival

"Basic food has completely disappeared. For families who have children, there is no milk in the markets.

"Every day we have at least 20 to 30 attacks by Russian aircraft or by the helicopters.

"There are no cars going around. Public transport has completely stopped because of the lack of fuel. People are staying inside their houses to avoid shelling."

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Photographs were released on Tuesday by state media purporting to show opposition gunmen surrendering to the Syrian army in Aleppo

A rebel source told the Reuters news agency that about 10,000 troops, at least 95 tanks and several hundred rocket launchers had been deployed for what he described as the "great epic battle of Aleppo".

The source said scores of suicide bombers had also been prepared to drive explosive-laden military vehicles into army posts.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Tyres have been burnt in parts of Aleppo to deter Russian air strikes
Image copyright AP
Image caption Much of Aleppo has been destroyed in recent fighting
Image copyright EPA
Image caption Aleppo has become a desperate place for civilians

UK-based monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights described the rebel offensive as the largest so far, involving fighting across the divided city's main battle fronts.

It said government forces had regained two villages and two hilltops in the south-west suburbs of Aleppo late on Tuesday.

The observatory said 50 rebel fighters and jihadists had been killed since the operation began on Sunday, as well as dozens of government soldiers.

It has been reported that barrels suspected to contain chlorine gas were dropped on the town of Saraqeb near Aleppo.

About 30 people, mostly women and children, were reported to have been affected. Chlorine gas can cause victims to become short of breath and to foam blood from the mouth.

It is not clear who was responsible.

The attack took place near to where a Russian military transport helicopter was shot down by rebels hours earlier killing all five personnel on board.

It was the deadliest single incident for Russia's military since its air campaign began last September.

The Russian government has responded to US criticism over its actions in Syria by arguing that it is "unacceptable" to demand restraint around Aleppo.

Aleppo was once Syria's commercial capital and also boasted a rich architectural and archaeological heritage.

Much of it has been destroyed or looted during more than five years of war.