ALEPPO - Syria’s army seized key ground in its battle to retake Aleppo on Tuesday, capturing five more districts including a strategic neighbourhood at the heart of rebel territory.

The advance came as Moscow and Washington traded barbs over stalled efforts to end fighting in the city, where forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have made significant advances in recent days.

On Tuesday, government troops retook five districts including the strategic Shaar neighbourhood and were in control of 70 percent of former rebel territory in east Aleppo, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The monitoring group described Shaar as “the most important neighbourhood in the heart of east Aleppo”, and said rebels were being reduced to fighting a “war of attrition” with regime troops.

The rapid regime gains have left opposition fighters scrambling to defend the shrinking enclave they still control in Aleppo’s southeastern districts.

Despite mounting criticism of the offensive, world powers have struggled to find a way to halt the fighting.

Key Assad ally Russia had announced talks with the United States in Geneva for Tuesday or Wednesday on organising a rebel withdrawal from Aleppo ahead of a ceasefire. But on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Washington, which has backed rebel groups against Assad, of backtracking.

“It looks like an attempt to buy time for the rebels to have a breather, take a pause and replenish their reserves,” Lavrov said, adding that Moscow had the impression that “a serious discussion with our American partners isn’t working out”. US Secretary of State John Kerry denied any change of plans. “I’m not aware of any specific refusal,” he replied when asked about Moscow’s allegations as he attended a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels.

Washington had also accused Moscow of stalling for time after Russia and China blocked a UN Security Council resolution on Monday calling for a seven-day ceasefire.

Russia said the resolution should have been postponed until after the Geneva talks, saying an agreement on organising a withdrawal was close.

The deputy US envoy to the United Nations, Michele Sison, accused Moscow of using a “made-up alibi” to block the resolution. Syria’s foreign ministry said that it would not agree to any ceasefire without a guarantee of a rebel withdrawal.

“Syria will not leave its citizens in east Aleppo to be held hostage by terrorists, and will exert every effort to liberate them,” said a foreign ministry statement carried by state news agency SANA.

The rebels have so far rejected any talk of leaving the city, with Yasser al-Youssef of the leading Nureddin al-Zinki faction describing the proposal as “unacceptable”.

Opposition fighters have been forced to evacuate several of their besieged strongholds in Syria during the conflict, most recently a string of areas near Damascus. But the loss of Aleppo would be the biggest blow yet to opposition forces in Syria’s civil war, which erupted in 2011 with popular protests calling for Assad’s ouster. More than 300,000 people have since died and millions forced from their homes.

Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial and cultural hub, has been a key battleground of the war and suffered some of its worst violence.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday lashed out at the international community’s inability to stop the bloodshed. “Aleppo is a disgrace,” she said in a speech to her conservative Christian Democratic Union party. She said world powers must “continue to fight” to establish aid corridors for desperate residents.

The offensive has killed more than 341 people in east Aleppo, including 44 children, the Observatory says.

Rebel fire into the government-held west of the city has killed 81 people, including 31 children, in the same period, it says.

On another front, in northwest Syria, a suspected Russian air strike on Idlib city and province targeting rebel groups on Tuesday killed at least 25 civilians, the Observatory said. It said 10 people, among them five civilians, were killed in retaliatory rebel fire on pro-regime towns in Idlib.

 

 

Tens of thousands of east Aleppo residents have also fled to different parts of the city, including to government-held areas and other rebel neighbourhoods.

Among them is Bana al-Abed, a seven-year-old girl whose Twitter account documenting life in Aleppo has gained international attention.

Concern had grown for the girl and her family after the account fell silent for 24 hours, but her father told AFP on Tuesday they had fled the fighting and were safe for now.

“The army got really close to our neighbourhood. We fled to another part of east Aleppo and the family is doing well,” he said.