BY THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
BEIRUT — Syrian rebels and pro-government forces clashed on several fronts around the contested city of Aleppo Sunday as the country’s military command called on militants to lay down their weapons and evacuate the city.
One day after pro-government forces captured the strategic al-Shuqeef hill north of the city, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported fierce fighting in areas close to the hill and the Bustan al-Basha neighbourhood, as the government tries to penetrate the city’s opposition-held eastern side.
The two sides clashed inside Aleppo’s southern Sheikh Saeed neighbourhood, as well.
The government’s offensive has been accompanied by a relentless Russian and government campaign of airstrikes across eastern Aleppo.
President Bashar Assad’s forces are depending on Russian air strikes and Iran-backed militias to bolster their campaign.
A spokesman for the Nour el-Din el-Zinki rebel faction told The Associated Press that foreign fighters were actively participating in the government’s ground campaign for the city. He said rebels could identify Lebanese and Iraqi militias by their flags.
An airstrike meanwhile targeted a rebel headquarters near the central city of Hama on Sunday, killing at least six militants, the Observatory said. The blow is a setback for the rebel campaign to advance on the government-controlled city.
The UN’s humanitarian chief, Stephen O’Brien reported Sunday that east Aleppo’s health system has been “all but obliterated” by shelling and bombardment.
“Medical facilities are being hit one by one,” O’Brien said in a statement that called for at least a weekly 48-hour humanitarian pause to the fighting. The UN estimates 275,000 people are trapped in the east by a government siege.
“We are in a race against time to protect and save civilians in eastern Aleppo city. They need our urgent action to bring an end to their living hell,” O’Brien said.
Air strikes put one of the city’s largest hospitals, located in the eastern Sakhour neighbourhood, out of service on Saturday, doctors and activists reported.
The Syrian military command said in a statement carried on state news Sunday that government forces would guarantee the gunmen safe passage out of the city’s opposition-held eastern neighbourhoods.
Russia, which backs President Bashar Assad’s government in the Syrian war, announced a month ago that the government would open safe passages for civilians to leave eastern Aleppo one. Few have accepted that offer.
The United Nations says at least 320 civilians have been killed since the government announced an offensive on eastern Aleppo on Sept. 22.
Meanwhile the European Union on Sunday offered to help evacuate patients in Aleppo’s hospitals and deliver food, water and medical aid to the city’s besieged east.
In a statement, EU foreign policy chief Frederica Mogherini called on international players to unite to make this aid effort work “for the sake of humanity and the political future of Syria.”
The EU is mobilizing $25 million in emergency aid and offering to help evacuate patients to other medical facilities including in Europe if needed.