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Civilians among dead as fierce fighting erupts around Aleppo, killing at least 35

AFP-JIJI

Clashes around Syria’s second city of Aleppo have killed at least 16 pro-regime fighters and 19 members of al-Qaida’s affiliate and allied rebel groups in 24 hours, a monitor said Sunday.

“Fierce fighting raged past midnight on several fronts in the south of Aleppo province,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah fighters were fighting alongside regime troops and other loyalist militia against jihadis and rebels, the monitoring group said.

“Shelling and fighting in the past 24 hours has left 19 Syrian and non-Syrian members of al-Nusra dead … while 16 pro-regime fighters were also killed,” the Observatory said, adding that one jihadi had blown himself up.

A truce brokered by the United States and Russia, which back opposing sides in Syria’s war, does not apply to the fight against jihadis.

Across much of Syria, the Feb. 27 truce has largely held. In areas where Nusra fights alongside allied rebel groups, violence has been frequent despite the cease-fire.

Around Aleppo in particular, “the cease-fire has all but collapsed on the main front lines,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

“Al-Nusra, (Islamist rebel group) Ahrar al-Sham and their allies are pushing an offensive to take back turf seized around Aleppo by the regime before the truce came into force,” he told AFP.

Inside the city, the Observatory said regime barrel bomb strikes on Sunday hit the northeastern district of Al-Haidariyah, injuring a number of people, including children.

“This is a new violation of the cease-fire inside the city,” Abdel Rahman said.

He said neither the jihadi Islamic State (IS) group nor Nusra Front were present in the area.

AFP video footage shows at least five people injured, including three children residents and aid workers, carried to ambulances.

“They’re all civilians, there are no militants or Daesh here,” one man said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “They’re all children and women.”

An aid worker said that a family — father, mother and five children — were injured when a barrel bomb hit the neighborhood.

Rebels have frequently shelled Sheikh Maqsud, a mainly Kurdish area of Aleppo, leaving dozens of civilians dead since the truce began, Abdel Rahman said.

Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi said Sunday loyalist Syrian troops were preparing a major operation to retake control of Aleppo city with Russian air cover.

“With our Russian partners we are preparing an operation to free Aleppo and block all illegal armed groups that have not joined or have broken the cease-fire deal,” Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted Halqi as saying after meeting Russian lawmakers in Damascus.

Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011 with anti-government protests but has since evolved into a multi-front war drawing in regional powers.

Halqi said that regaining control of Aleppo from rebels hostile to the regime of President Bashar Assad would allow government forces to advance east to Deir Ezzor, some 60 percent of which is under the control of the Islamic State group.

Damascus has vowed with the support of its Russian allies to drive Islamic State out of the area after its recent victory over the group two weeks ago in the ancient city of Palmyra.

Aleppo, formerly Syria’s economic capital and the country’s second city, has since 2012 been divided into zones held between rebel groups and areas still under government control.

More than 270,000 people have been killed since Syria’s conflict first broke out in March 2011