BEIRUT: Syrian troops captured a rebel-held area on the edge of Aleppo on Saturday, tightening their siege on opposition-held neighborhoods in the northern city after what residents described as the heaviest air bombardment of the 5 ½-year civil war.
The new government push came as the U.N. said that nearly 2 million people in Aleppo, Syria's largest city and onetime commercial center, are without running water following the escalation in fighting over the past few days.
Government forces captured the rebel-held Palestinian refugee camp of Handarat as airstrikes pounded rebel-held eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo, killing at least 32 people, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Local Coordination Committees, another monitoring group, said 49 were killed on Saturday alone.
The Observatory said the death toll in Aleppo is expected to rise since many people are in critical condition and rescue workers are still digging through the rubble.
Residents say the latest bombardment is the worst they've seen since rebels captured parts of the city in 2012. Activists reported dozens of airstrikes on Friday alone.
"Since the beginning of the crisis, Aleppo has not been subjected to such a vicious campaign," said Mohammed Abu Jaafar, a forensics expert based in the city. "Aleppo is being wiped out. We have not seen such shelling in six years, whether by artillery, warplanes or multiple rocket launchers."
For days, videos and photographs from eastern Aleppo have shown buildings being flattened and paramedics pulling bodies from the rubble. Wounded people have flooded into clinics, where many are being treated on the floor because of a lack of stretchers.
In the rebel-held neighborhood of Bustan al-Qasr, cluster bombs killed 13 people and wounded 150, according to Ibrahim Alhaj, a rescue worker with the Syrian Civil Defense, volunteer first responders also known as the White Helmets.
Syrian state TV said insurgents shelled the government-held neighborhood of Salhiyeh, killing five people. The Observatory said insurgents shelled the government stronghold of Masyaf, home to a large number of Alawites, members of President Bashar Assad's sect, which until now had largely been spared from violence.
An unnamed Syrian military official was quoted by state media on Friday as saying that airstrikes and shelling in Aleppo would continue for an extended period and "include a ground offensive" into rebel-held areas.
The fall of Handarat to Syrian troops allied with pro-government Palestinian fighters pushes insurgents further away from the government-controlled Castello Road, a main artery leading to rebel-held parts of the city.
"Breaking the siege through the Castello road has become very difficult," Yassin Abu Raed, an opposition activist based in Aleppo province, told The Associated Press.
An unnamed Syrian military official quoted by state TV confirmed the capture of Handarat, adding that many insurgents were killed. He said experts are removing explosives from the area. The camp, which is almost empty and largely destroyed, has seen intense fighting and bombardment in recent years, and changed hands multiple times.
The Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition, one of Syria's main opposition groups, condemned the attacks on Aleppo, calling it "a crazy crime led by the Assad regime and Russian occupation." It said "the criminal campaign aims to settle international accounts at the expense of Syrians' blood."
The escalation comes as diplomats in New York have failed to salvage a cease-fire that lasted nearly a week. The unprecedented bombing, which began late Wednesday, has targeted residential areas, infrastructure and Civil Defense centers.
A Western diplomat speaking to a group of journalists in Beirut said that despite the wave of air raids, the rebel-held parts of Aleppo were unlikely to fall anytime soon.
"I will say it seems highly improbable that there will be quick defeat of eastern Aleppo," the diplomat said, referring to the rebel-held districts. "The only way to take it is by such monstrous atrocities that it would resonate for generations."
"It would be absolutely the stuff of myth and history," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief media.
Aleppo has been an epicenter of fighting in recent months. It is the last major urban area held by the opposition, and the rebels' defeat there would mark a major turning point in the conflict, which has killed more than 300,000 people and driven half the country's population from their homes.
Living conditions in the already-battered eastern districts have meanwhile grown even worse.
Hanaa Singer, UNICEF representative in Syria, said attacks damaged the Bab al-Nairab station, which supplies water to some 250,000 people in the rebel-held east.
Singer said that in retaliation, the Suleiman al-Halabi pumping station, also located in the rebel-held east, was switched off — cutting water to 1.5 million people in government-held western parts of the city.