Middle East

Syria conflict: Aleppo rebels 'stem army advance'

Syrian civilians arrive at a checkpoint manned by pro-government forces after leaving eastern Aleppo on 10 December 2016 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Thousands of civilians are streaming out of rebel-held areas of eastern Aleppo

Rebels holding out in the Syrian city of Aleppo say they have halted, for now, the government advance into the few areas still under their control.

One commander said pro-government forces had been diverted to fight militants who have re-entered the city of Palmyra.

Rebel-held eastern areas of Aleppo are still under heavy bombardment.

Rescue groups says they are overwhelmed by the numbers of people trapped in the rubble of destroyed buildings.

A Reuters correspondent in Aleppo said Russian warplanes and Syrian artillery had bombarded rebel-held districts on Saturday while rebels responded by shelling government-controlled areas.

Ibrahim Abu al-Leith, a spokesman for the White Helmets rescue force inside Aleppo, described the bombardment as "unreal".

"The streets are full of people under the rubble," he told AFP news agency. "They are dying because we can't get them out."

The Russian military says the Syrian government now controls 93% of Aleppo.

Thousands of civilians have been streaming out of the east of the city. They have to queue at government checkpoint before they are allowed any further.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption IS fighters were driven out of Palmyra in March, but have been regrouping

A commander of the Aleppo-based Jaish al-Mujahideen rebel group said a possible reason for the slowed government advance could be the redeployment of troops to Palmyra.

So-called Islamic State (IS) held Palmyra and its nearby ancient ruins for 10 months before it was recaptured by Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air strikes, in March.

But the jihadist group launched an offensive earlier this week.

Monitoring groups said there was fierce fighting in the centre of the city on Saturday.

Palmyra is seen as a strategic location for IS because of its close proximity to oil fields.

IS destroyed a number of monuments and beheaded the archaeological director during its 10-month occupation of the Unesco World Heritage site and the adjacent city of Tadmur.

Two 2,000-year-old temples, an arch and funerary towers were left in ruins.

On Saturday, US Secretary of State John Kerry called on the Syrian government and the Russian military to "show a little grace" as they mopped up the remaining rebel-held areas of Aleppo.

He was speaking after a meeting in Paris of governments that back the Syrian opposition.

US and Russian officials are due to meet in Geneva to discuss the possible evacuation of civilians and rebel fighters from Aleppo. But analysts say an agreement looks unlikely.