Aleppo battle threatens Syria peace talks

Heavy fighting is raging on the outskirts of Syria’s northern city of Aleppo between regime forces and opposition rebels, activists say, marring UN-sponsored peace talks under way in Geneva.

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Regime forces, backed by Russian warplanes, are trying to advance on rebel-held strategic areas in Aleppo by cutting a major supply route for the opposition, the activists added.

“Troops loyal to (Syrian President Bashar) al-Assad and their Russian allies started on Thursday a wide-scale attack on the villages of Handarat and the al-Mallahah Farms north of Aleppo,” said Mahmoud al-Shami, an activist based in the city.

He told DPA on Friday that the regime forces briefly seized parts of the al-Mallah Farms from rebels, who later recaptured them.

Russian warplanes are heavily involved in the ongoing attack, according to al-Shami.

No casualties were reported.

Should al-Assad’s forces take control of the area, they would impose a siege on rebel-controlled areas in Aleppo, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel-Rahman, said.

Aleppo, Syria’s pre-war commercial hub, has been divided between regime forces based in the west and rebels to the east since fighting erupted for the control of the city in mid-2012.

The battles in Aleppo are seen as the biggest threat to a partial ceasefire, which has been in force in Syria since February.

The truce brokered by the United States and Russia excludes the Islamic State terrorist militia and Syria’s al-Qaeda branch, al-Nusra Front.

Meanwhile, renewed fighting between IS and Western-backed rebels in northern Syria near the Turkish border has displaced thousands of people, Human Rights Watch said on Friday.

IS’s advances in northern Aleppo in the past few days have forced already displaced people living in camps east of the town of Azaz to leave their camps, the New York-based watchdog said.

“At least half the camps’ 60,000 residents have fled to other camps, to the Bab al-Salameh camp on the Turkish border and to the nearby town of Azaz,” it said.

Three of the camps – Ikdah, Harameen and al-Sham – are now completely empty of the 24,000 people previously sheltering there, HRW added.

The watchdog called on Turkey to reopen its border to the refugees.

The surge in violence comes as UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura is due to meet later on Friday a government delegation to discuss ways to end the country’s five-year conflict that is estimated to have killed more than 270,000 people.

Syria’s indirect peace talks resumed on Wednesday. De Mistura shuttles between the government and opposition negotiators in Geneva.