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Syrian rebels launch Aleppo offensive to break siege

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels launched a broad offensive for Aleppo Friday as the Russian, Syrian, and Iranian foreign ministers vowed to intensify their fight against terrorism in the country.

The battlefield allies met in Moscow as the Syrian government is looking to cement its authority over the divided northern city and the contested suburbs of the capital, Damascus.

Fighting for Aleppo appeared to have calmed by the afternoon after rebels assaulted the city's government-controlled western side with three vehicle bombs and at least 150 rockets in the morning. The Syrian military said the rockets were Russian-made Grad missiles.

At least 15 civilians were killed in the volley, according to pro-government TV stations. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group also said that 15 civilians were killed, and over 100 injured.

A reporter inside the city for the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV channel had reported attacks on "all sides" of the city, "from the furthest points north to the furthest south."

Sounds of heavy gunfire, mortar fire, and explosions were heard in the background of his broadcast, as dark smoke was seen rising above the city on the overcast morning. Presumed government or Russian jets were also heard flying overhead.

An afternoon broadcast from the city on Lebanon-based Al-Manar TV depicted a quieter scene, though sporadic gunfire and missile attacks were heard in the background.

Rebels said they seized a factory and pushed into government-held neighborhoods in southwestern Aleppo, but the Syrian military said through SANA that it had repelled the offensive from all fronts, with support from allied militias.

"The Syrian army and its allies are in control on the ground and armed groups were not able to change the map," the military statement said. "Fighting is still ongoing but the intensity has dropped."

This is the second attempt by rebels to break the government's siege of Aleppo's opposition-held eastern districts, where the U.N. estimates 275,000 people are trapped. U.N. Special Envoy Staffan De Mistura has estimated 8,000 of them are rebel fighters, and no more than 900 of them affiliated with the al-Qaida-linked Fatah al-Sham Front.

The area has been subjected to a ferocious campaign of aerial attacks by Russian and Syrian government warplanes, and hundreds of people have been killed in recent weeks, according to opposition activists and trapped residents.

Rebels opened a corridor to the east for the month of August after pro-government forces first applied a blockade in July, but they were not able to hold it as the government and its Russian ally pounded the gap with artillery and airstrikes. Pro-government forces reapplied the siege in early September.

The setback caused the rebels to pursue a different tack, and they are trying to draw government forces into street fighting in the densely-inhabited western part of the city, according to rebel spokesman Ammar Sakkar. They are hoping this will dissuade the government and Russian air force from using heavy weapons and aerial munitions.

"We want to force the regime into street battles, in addition to opening several fronts," said Fastaqim spokesman Ammar Sakkar. "It may go beyond lifting the siege to liberating the whole city."

Friday's attack began with rebels detonating three vehicle-borne explosives against government positions to the city's southwest and attacking with hundreds of rockets, the Observatory said. It said at least one of the vehicles was driven by a suicide bomber for Fatah al-Sham, which also announced the offensive.

Fatah al-Sham claimed credit for two car bombs, saying in a statement that a "martyrdom-seeking fighter" drove a tank laden with explosives and parked it, before it was detonated and the fighter "returned to his brothers."

The Islamic Front rebel coalition also announced on Twitter that the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group targeted a military airport to the east of the city with Grad rockets and destroyed a government position to the west of the city.

Sakkar, said "all the revolutionary factions, without exception, are participating in the battle." He said hundreds of fighters were participating in the attack, adding that the total number of participants was "much higher."

"What the rebels did today, it was very much a technical thing to try to tell the regime ... we can get more weapons and get to Aleppo," said Bassam Barabandi, political adviser to the Syrian opposition's High Negotiations Committee, in an interview in Washington.

The Syrian army depends on battlefield assistance from Lebanese and Iraqi militias, as well as Russian air power and Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard forces.

The Russian military says it has asked President Vladimir Putin to allow the resumption of airstrikes in Syria on the rebel-held eastern part of Aleppo due to the fresh rebel offensive there.

Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi said the opposition fighters took advantage of a 10-day moratorium on military flights over the city to attempt to break the siege of the eastern rebel-held part of the city. He says all attacks have been repelled, but 43 civilians have been killed and 96 wounded in the rebel shelling.

Putin rejected the military's request for the resumption of airstrikes on the rebel-held eastern part of Aleppo. The president's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that Putin considers it "inadvisable to resume airstrikes on Aleppo," and wants to have humanitarian corridors out of Aleppo's rebel-held districts stay open both for rebels and civilians to leave the city.

The Syrian government has labeled the country's armed opposition "terrorists." Syria has sunk ever deeper into a costly civil war since security forces cracked down brutally on popular demonstrations in 2011.

Near the capital Damascus, meanwhile, the Syrian army captured an army missile base that was held by rebels, as well as a castle. Syrian troops have been on the offensive near Damascus for weeks.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a news conference with his Syrian and Iranian counterparts the intensified fight would come in parallel with efforts to improve humanitarian aid access.

But U.N. official Jan Egeland said Thursday it was the Syrian government that had denied humanitarian access to eastern Aleppo as part of a monthly U.N. plan to access 25 besieged and remote areas in Syria.

Western nations accuse Russia of deliberately attacking a U.N.-backed aid convoy in September in rebel-held territory, killing over a dozen humanitarian workers and destroying hundreds of tons of cargo.

Aleppo is the focal point of the war. President Bashar Assad has said he is determined to retake the country's largest city and former commercial capital.

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