Syrian Army Tightens Grip on Aleppo but IS Back in Palmyra

Syrian pro-government forces sit in front of Islamist graffiti in an Aleppo neighborhood on Dec. 10 (AFP photo/George Ourfalian)
Syrian pro-government forces sit in front of Islamist graffiti in an Aleppo neighborhood on Dec. 10 (AFP photo/George Ourfalian)

The Syrian army tightened its grip Saturday on rebels besieged in Aleppo along with thousands of civilians, but suffered a setback as Islamic State jihadists re-entered the ancient desert city of Palmyra.

IS fighters have returned to Syria's famed ancient desert city of Palmyra, from which they were driven out eight months ago, the Observatory's Rami Abdel Rahman said.

"IS entered Palmyra on Saturday and now occupies its northwest. There is also fighting with the army in the city center," he said.

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In May last year, IS seized several towns in Homs province, including Palmyra, which is on UNESCO's world heritage list. They caused extensive damage to many ancient sites there before being ousted in March by Syrian regime forces backed by Russia.

In east Aleppo, air strikes pummeled the shrinking rebel enclave as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the Syrian regime's "indiscriminate bombing" amounted to crimes against humanity.

Western powers meeting in Paris called for peace talks to resume and for civilians to be allowed to leave Aleppo, where tens of thousands have already fled the offensive.

The diplomatic flurry came as a US-backed alliance announced it would launch the second phase of its battle for the Islamic State group's de facto Syrian capital of Raqa further east.

Washington announced it was sending an additional 200 troops to support that offensive against IS.

The three-week-old assault by Syria's Russian-backed regime aimed at retaking all of Aleppo has triggered mounting international outrage.

Speaking in Paris, Kerry said the regime's "indiscriminate bombing" of Aleppo amounted to "war crimes" and "crimes against humanity" and he called for Russia and Assad's other backers Iran to show "a little grace" and help end it.

American and Russian officials were also due to gather in Geneva for what Kerry called a bid to stop the city from "being absolutely, completely, destroyed".

Aleppo has witnessed some of the most brutal violence of Syria's nearly six-year war.

In less than a month, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have overrun around 85 percent of east Aleppo, a rebel stronghold since 2012.

U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said the world is watching "the last steps" in the Aleppo battle and evacuating civilians must be a priority.

- Bombing 'unreal' -

Air strikes and regime rocket fire battered the last remaining rebel districts Saturday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The strikes were so intense that windows in the west rattled and plumes of smoke could be seen from across the city's skyline.

"The bombing is unreal," said Ibrahim Abu al-Leith, spokesman for the White Helmets rescue force inside Aleppo, speaking from one of the last rebel-controlled zones in Aleppo's southeast.

"The streets are full of people under the rubble. They are dying because we can't get them out," he told AFP.

The Observatory said nine civilians were killed Saturday by rebel rocket fire into government-controlled districts, taking to 129 people, including 39 children, the number killed there by rebel fire since November 15.

Another 413 civilians, among them 45 children, have been killed in east Aleppo in the same period.

With the fighting intensifying after a brief respite, the U.N. General Assembly demanded an immediate ceasefire and urgent aid deliveries, in a resolution adopted by a strong majority.

But both Moscow and Damascus have rejected talk of a ceasefire without a rebel withdrawal -- a demand that opposition groups have refused.

After meeting opposition representatives on Saturday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the opposition was willing to resume peace talks "without preconditions".

However, a diplomatic source told AFP the opposition required a political transition in Syria before it would agree to take part.

- Civilians flee -

"There can be no military solution in Syria," British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said in Paris, urging "a return to a political process with the credibility necessary for all parties to commit to an end to all the fighting."

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said: "We demand that the regime, but also Iran and Russia, let people leave the conflict zone."

The Observatory said another 2,000 civilians fled Aleppo's remaining rebel-held districts Saturday.

State news agency SANA gave a number of 3,000, and said they had been taken to the temporary shelter in Jibrin, about six miles east of the city.

The U.N. said Friday it had received reports of rebels blocking some from leaving and of reprisals against residents who asked armed groups to leave.

It has also expressed concern about reports that hundreds of men had gone missing after fleeing to government-held territory.

The fall of east Aleppo would be the biggest blow for the rebels since the war began in 2011.

It began as a widespread protest movement against Assad's regime but has since evolved into an all-out war that has seen jihadists such as IS rise to prominence.

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