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Aleppo celebrates end of siege of starvation

Syrians in the war-ravaged city of Aleppo took to the streets for a brief moment of celebration last night.

Published: 07th August 2016 08:45 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th August 2016 08:45 AM   |  A+A-

Switzerland Syria Pro_Mukh

Syrian protesters demonstrate against the bombing of Aleppo in Syria, on the Place des Nations in front of the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. (AP)

Syrians in the war-ravaged city of Aleppo took to the streets for a brief moment of celebration last night (Saturday night) as a combined force of rebels and jihadists claimed to have broken the regime siege that had strangled the city for a month.

After six days of ferocious close-quarters combat that killed more than 500 fighters on both sides, opposition forces said they had punched through the lines of regime troops who had encircled the eastern part of the city.

The opposition's success against regime soldiers supported by Russian air power is a major blow to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's ambitions to finally crush rebel forces in the country's second-largest city.

The breakthrough also raised hopes of opening a supply corridor to east Aleppo for the first time in weeks and allowing much-needed food, medicine and fuel to reach the 300,000 civilians stranded there.

"Rebels break Aleppo's siege," the Syrian National Coalition, an umbrella opposition group, said on Twitter.

The question now is whether opposition fighters will be able to hold on to their gains, and residents and activists said they were bracing themselves for fierce retaliation from the regime and Russia - possibly including the use of chemical weapons.

Much of the manpower for the victory came from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a jihadist group that until recently was known as the al-Nusra Front and was al-Qaeda's official offshoot in Syria.

The group announced last month it was splitting from al-Qaeda to try to increase its domestic appeal, but experts said it was only a symbolic rebranding that did not affect its ideology.

Like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), Jabhat Fateh al-Sham are savvy users of social media, and released video footage of bearded fighters overrunning an artillery base that had been a key regime stronghold.

The footage showed jihadists stepping over the bodies of dead Syrian soldiers and tearing down a framed poster of Mr Assad before ripping it to shreds.

The end of siege will be welcomed by the US and Britain but also underscores the failure of Western diplomacy to convince Russia to use its influence in Syria to end the suffering of civilians.

Robert Ford, the former US ambassador to Syria, said the fact that armed jihadists had ended the siege while Western diplomacy floundered showed the "futility of US tactics and strategy".

"Jihadists are now heroes in the eyes of local populations after breaking the siege of east Aleppo. They have won the battle plus the hearts and minds of people," said Jenan Moussa, a broadcaster with Al Aan Television.

Rather than reining in the Syrian regime troops, Russia's air force kept up a punishing rain of strikes on opposition-held neighbourhoods.

A doctor in Aleppo said more than 40 air strikes hit the city yesterday.

One bomb hit the M2 hospital, where ragged teams of doctors and nurses used what few medical supplies they had left to treat injured civilians. Three people were wounded in the blast.

It was the fourth time the hospital had been hit by air strikes in a month.

Young men and boys ventured onto the streets as news of the end of the siege spread late yesterday afternoon. They waved Syrian flags and honked car horns, while others gathered on top of lorries to celebrate. Celebratory gunfire rang out.

"Days ago, I was only thinking about how to get a bite to eat," said Ahmad Adna, a 46-year-old resident of eastern Aleppo.

A cartoon of an injured boy holding up a burning tyre in the same pose as the Statue of Liberty was shared widely on opposition social media pages.

Rebel fighters from the besieged east of the city linked up with their allies in the west for the first time in weeks.

Pro-Assad activists continued to deny that the siege was over, even as images of victorious opposition fighters spread. All eyes now are on how the Assad regime and its allies in Hizbollah, Iran and Russia respond.

Zaher Sahloul, a Syrian-American doctor who was in Aleppo recently, said people were expecting an increase in air strikes. "You expect that the regime and Russia will take revenge on areas that fell recently," he said.

One fear is of chemical weapons. On Monday, a regime helicopter dropped chlorine gas on the town of Saraqib.

"Look at the regime's track record - they are ready to do anything to try to win back power," said Dr Sahloul. "They know the world will not respond."



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