Rebels' hold on eastern Aleppo collapses as Syrian troops move in
Syrian government forces have captured more than a third of opposition-held eastern Aleppo, touching off a wave of panic and flight from the besieged enclave as rebel defences in the country's largest city rapidly collapsed.
The dramatic gains threatened to dislodge armed opponents of President Bashar Assad from their last major urban stronghold.
Reclaiming all of Aleppo, Syria's former commercial capital, would be the biggest prize of the war for Assad. It would put his forces in control of the country's four largest cities as well as the coastal region, and cap a year of steady government advances.
It also would bolster his position and momentum just as a new US administration is taking hold, freeing thousands of his troops and allied militiamen to move on to other battles around the country.
Since it joined the uprising four years ago, eastern Aleppo has tried to make itself a model for a Syria without Assad. It elected local leaders, ran its own education system and built an economy trading with the rebel-held countryside and neighbouring Turkey.
Its residents kept life going amid ferocious fighting with the pro-government western districts, but four years of battles and air strikes have reduced entire blocks to rubble.
Helped by massive Russian air power and thousands of Iranian-backed Shiite militia fighters from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, Assad renewed his push for Aleppo this month. The besieged eastern districts came under intense air strikes that killed hundreds in the past two weeks.
More than 250,000 people are believed to be trapped there with limited access to food, water and medical supplies. They include more than 100,000 children, the UN says.
Thousands of civilians, many of whom had refused to leave despite the suffocating siege and bombardment, fled the enclave over the weekend and on Monday.
Pro-government forces began a push last week apparently aimed at slicing the territory in two. Over the weekend, rebel defences buckled under simultaneous advances by the government and Kurdish-led forces, sending people fleeing inside the divided city.
Troops moved quickly on Saturday into the Hanano neighbourhood, the first time they had pushed that far into eastern Aleppo since 2012. On Monday, they moved into the Sakhour district, putting much of the northern part of the city's besieged rebel-held areas under government control.
With the capture of Sakhour, the rebels are boxed in mostly in central and south-eastern Aleppo, encircled by government troops.
Ammar Sakkar, a spokesman for the Fastaqim brigade, said the rebels would continue to fight.
"The situation of the revolutionaries inside the city is good, from a military point of view," he said. "We've redeployed and made fortifications. There will be an attempt to hold fast."
The collapse in Aleppo is a devastating blow to the morale of rebels in other parts of Syria. With Aleppo secure, Assad will be able to turn his attentions to the Damascus countryside and Idlib, the province next to Aleppo.
The northern province is a stronghold of the al Qaida-linked Fateh al-Sham Front and other Islamic opposition factions, and the loss of Aleppo is expected to be a defeat for the people holed up there.
It would also potentially free up Assad's forces to advance on the Islamic State group, including the north-eastern city of Raqqa, the extremists' de facto capital.
US President-elect Donald Trump has made clear that defeating IS is more important than removing Assad.