x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Captured tanks boost Syrian rebels in fight for Aleppo

Rebels also hit the heart of Damascus with occasional mortar shells or bombings, posing a stiff challenge to Bashar Al Assad¿s regime in its seat of power.

BEIRUT // Rebels, with the support of captured tanks, launched a new offensive on a government complex housing a police academy near the northern city of Aleppo yesterday, prompting the government to respond with air strikes to try to protect the strategic installation.

If rebels capture the complex on the outskirts of Aleppo, it would mark another setback for president Bashar Al Assad's regime. In recent weeks, the regime has lost control of key infrastructure in the north-east, including a hydroelectric dam, a major oilfield and two army bases along the road linking Aleppo with the airport to its east.

Rebels also have been hitting the heart of Damascus with occasional mortar shells or bombings, posing a stiff challenge to Mr Al Assad's regime in its seat of power.

On Saturday, opposition fighters in the eastern province of Deir Al Zour overran a site known as Al Kibar, which was home to what is believed to have been a partly built nuclear reactor that Israeli warplanes bombed in 2007.

A year after that strike, the UN nuclear watchdog determined that the destroyed building's size and structure fit specifications of a nuclear reactor. Syria has at no time stated the purpose of the site.

After the bombing, the regime carted away all the debris from the destroyed building and equipment from the two standing structures and, analysts said, the rebels were unlikely to have found any weapons in the abandoned complex.

Rebels have been trying for months to storm the government complex west of Aleppo in the suburb of Khan Al Asal, according to Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The facility also includes several smaller army outposts whose primary task is to protect the police academy inside the compound.

Aleppo has been the scene of some of the heaviest fighting of Syria's nearly two-year-old conflict.

On Friday, regime forces fired three missiles into a rebel-held area in eastern Aleppo, flattening several buildings and killing 37 people, according to the Observatory. It said the strike apparently involved ground-to-ground missiles. A similar attack on Tuesday in another impoverished Aleppo neighbourhood killed at least 33 people, almost half of them children.

The United Nations said at least 70,000 people had been killed since Syria's uprising against Mr Al Assad's authoritarian rule began nearly two years ago. Efforts to stop the bloodshed in Syria so far have failed, leaving the international community at a loss as to how to end the civil war.