BEIRUT: Syrian regime forces were on the defensive around Aleppo on Sunday after a rebel alliance said it inflicted a major setback by breaking a three-week government siege of the battered city.
A coalition of rebels and jihadists surged through regime territory on Saturday to open a new route into Aleppo's besieged eastern neighbourhoods, home to an estimated 250,000 people.
The breakthrough was met with euphoric scenes among civilians and opposition fighters in eastern districts, but sparked fear of food shortages among residents of regime-controlled western areas.
Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the development was one of the most significant setbacks for government forces since the conflict erupted in March 2011.
"Despite more than 600 Russian strikes, the regime forces were not able to hold onto their positions," he said.
Steadfast regime ally Moscow has provided air support for forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad since September 2015.
Abdel Rahman said there were intermittent air strikes and clashes on the southern edges of the city on Sunday, where the opposition alliance overran a series of buildings in a military academy the previous evening.
They then pushed northeast into the district of Ramussa, linking up with rebel groups that had fought south from inside the city.
Rebels posted footage of their fighters embracing and celebrating the end of the government encirclement, in place since July 17.
An AFP journalist in the eastern districts said one truck of vegetables entered late Saturday to be sold in the markets the following day.
"Not a single civilian has left the eastern districts because the road is too dangerous and not secured," Abdel Rahman said.
Regime denies siege broken
But their advance now puts the estimated 1.2 million living in government-held districts of the city under opposition encirclement, he added.
"The western districts of Aleppo are now besieged. There are no safe routes for civilians in government-held districts to use to get into or out of the city," he told AFP.
Families in the western districts late Saturday rushed to buy any food and drink left in preparation for shortages, a resident told AFP.
"Of course I have faith in the army, but I can't help being scared. Food is already getting more expensive and the coming days risk being very difficult," said the 34-year-old.
The fight for Aleppo is among the fiercest so far in Syria's chaotic multi-front war, which has killed more than 280,000 people.
Rebel and regime forces have fought to control the provincial capital since mid-2012, transforming the former economic powerhouse into a divided, bombed-out city.
State media denied that the siege had been broken and said the battle for Syria's second city was ongoing.
State television said the Syrian air force was carrying out air strikes around the military academy buildings seized by opposition forces.
"The terrorist groups are suffering huge losses and were not able to break the encirclement of the eastern neighbourhoods of Aleppo," state news agency SANA said late Saturday, quoting a military source.
"The Syrian army in coordination with allied forces are continuing their fight south of Aleppo," it said.
The agency said 10 civilians were killed on Saturday in rebel shelling on two government-held districts.
The Britain-based Observatory said at least 130 civilians have been killed since the opposition alliance launched its offensive on southern Aleppo on July 31.
The monitor said more than 700 fighters from both sides had been killed in the onslaught, most of them rebels because of the regime's "aerial superiority."
Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate said it had seized huge caches of weapons from regime forces in the artillery school south of Aleppo.
The Fateh al-Sham Front posted photos apparently showing artillery, trucks, armoured vehicles, and other weapons in wooden crates.
Syria's conflict erupted in March 2011 with protests against Assad's rule but has since evolved into a brutal war that has drawn in world powers.