BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces and their allies captured new ground on the edge of the contested northern city of Aleppo on Thursday, tightening the siege on rebel-held parts of the city, state media and an activist group said.
The latest push came after pro-government troops recaptured several military academies over the weekend that they had lost in attacks by insurgents a month ago.
The government advance also endangers talks between Russia and the United States over a possible Aleppo cease-fire. The city, Syria’s largest and once its commercial hub, has been the focus of fighting in recent months.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government forces backed by allied groups, including the Lebanese Hezbollah militant group, captured the Ramouseh neighborhood on the southern edge of Aleppo.
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Syrian state news agency SANA quoted an unnamed military official as confirming that pro-government troops had captured large parts of Ramouseh as well as a nearby hill.
Fighting continued to rage on the southern edge of Ramouseh, according to rebel fighters, and residents of the adjacent opposition-held neighborhood of al-Sukkari reported heavy shelling.
The Observatory reported that 40 days of fighting in Aleppo has killed nearly 700 civilians, including 160 children.
On Thursday, the government denied it had carried out a toxic gas attack on civilians in Aleppo, two days after officials and rescuers in rebel-held parts of the city reported a suspected chlorine gas attack by government helicopters. They said two people died and at least 70 people suffered breathing difficulties.
In a sign of the deepening conflict in Aleppo, Capt. Abdel-Razzak Abdel-Salam, a spokesman for the rebel group Nour el-Din el-Zinki, said rebel fighters resumed shelling the Castello road, the government-captured highway that was considered in international talks as a potential corridor for humanitarian aid.
The rebels had been arguing that Ramouseh, when they controlled it, could be an alternative route for humanitarian aid. But now it is under government control.
Talks between Moscow and Washington have been bogged down over ways to create a lasting a cease-fire in Aleppo, among other issues.
Abdel-Salam said that even while the Syrian government and its ally Russia were negotiating with the U.S. on a cease-fire in Aleppo they were plotting a “new betrayal” of besieged neighborhoods, violating the spirit of the talks aimed at allowing humanitarian aid into opposition districts.
He said that “events have overtaken” cease-fire talks. “All options are open,” including fighting the government on new fronts, he added.
In Turkey, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said the Syrian government was not “serious” about maintaining or reaching a cease-fire through diplomatic efforts. He said the government had rejected a plan for political transition presented by the Syrian opposition in London Wednesday.
“Everything depends on the Syrian administration. It was not serious, it did not remain faithful to the cease-fire. It did all that it could to delay the efforts,” he said, speaking to reporters in Istanbul.
To the south, near the capital, the second phase of an agreement reached by the government for people to leave the Damascus suburb of Moadamiyeh was implemented Thursday, with nearly 150 people heading to a nearby suburb.
The evacuees were originally from the nearby Damascus suburb of Daraya but had been living in Moadamiyeh for nearly three years.
The 146 men, women and children left Moadamiyeh as part of an earlier deal reached to completely evacuate Daraya, which was besieged by the government for four years.
Once they had been searched and their identity cards were checked, the evacuees boarded government buses that took them to Harjalleh, another government-held area, near Damascus.
Bassam Karbouj, the chairman of Moadamiyeh council, told reporters that the evacuation is a completion of a process that was started a week ago, when some 300 civilians were taken out of the besieged suburb and transferred to makeshift centers in a government-held district.
He added that between 250 and 300 gunmen from Daraya remained in Moadamiyeh. They have the option of handing over their weapons under a government amnesty or being evacuated to the rebel-held northwestern city of Idlib.
In Turkey, military officials said Kurdish fighters in northern Syria opened fire at Turkish border guards, prompting retaliatory fire.
The officials said the fighters fired at the soldiers with automatic rifles from the area of Afrin, which is controlled by Syrian Kurdish militia, late on Wednesday. They said the soldiers responded with automatic fire “within the right to self-defense.” The officials provided the information Thursday on condition of anonymity, in line with government rules.
The Kurdish-affiliated Hawar news agency said six Kurdish fighters were killed.
Turkey sent tanks and troops into Syria last month to drive Islamic State militants away from the border and to halt the advance of the U.S.-backed predominantly Kurdish militia. Ankara views the Syrian Kurdish forces as a terror organization because of their links to Turkey’s outlawed Kurdish rebels.
Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu said the Syria operation will continue until the border region and the Manbij pocket, an area east of the Euphrates River, is secured.