Russian-backed Syrian government forces pushed deeper on Sunday into the ruins of eastern Aleppo, in an apparent strategy aimed at splitting the rebel-held sector of the once vibrant city.
Witnesses reported hordes of civilians fleeing the battered sector ahead of the onslaught, with Khaled Khatib, who works for the unarmed, volunteer rescue group known as the White Helmets, warning that "thousands of eastern residents" are taking refuge in government controlled western Aleppo.
"[Eastern] Aleppo is going to die," he posted on Twitter.
Syrian state media reported that government forces, backed by Russian air power, stormed through a second key rebel district on Sunday, just hours after breaching rebel defenses on the sector's northeast frontline.
Hastening collapse of rebel force
Witnesses placed the government force late Sunday inside the Sakhur district, the narrowest point in eastern Aleppo. Analysts have warned that the fall of Sakhur to forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad would effectively divide the east from north to south and - in theory - hasten the collapse of the rebel force.
The French news agency quoted rebel fighter Yasser al-Youssef as saying opposition fighters were consolidating their positions in Sakhur. But he also warned that Russian and Syrian government warplanes are "destroying everything methodically, area by area."
Western monitors and analysts say as many as 250,000 civilians have been trapped in eastern Aleppo under the government siege. For its part, the United Nations continues to warn that those civilians are facing dire threats to their safety and critical shortages of food and medicine.
Government ground forces, backed by their Russian allies, began a push into eastern Aleppo earlier this month, after days of intensive bombing by Russian and Syrian warplanes.
'Starve, get bombed or surrender' strategy
U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power held up the airstrikes as proof "that the [Syrian] regime and Russia are continuing their 'starve, get bombed or surrender' strategy in eastern Aleppo.
Her comments to the U.N. General Assembly last week were part of a stinging critique of Russian and Syrian actions in eastern Aleppo, which intensified in September when Russian warplanes joined the bombing campaign.
Moscow and Damascus have routinely described the fight against rebels in eastern Aleppo as a battle against terrorists, despite the sector's vast civilian population. Both governments have used the "terrorist" characterization to justify the deadly and apparently indiscriminate bombings in the sector.
On Sunday, Russia's Tass news agency bolstered that claim with a statement saying "more and more [of eastern Aleppo] locals demonstrate they are against the crimes committed by terrorists" by fleeing to government controlled neighborhoods.
Western governments and the U.N. diplomats have scoffed at the Russian interpretation, while framing the Aleppo onslaught as a vast humanitarian crisis. Diplomats and human rights organizations argue that both Moscow and Damascus could face war crimes inquiries for their roles in the destruction of eastern Aleppo.
Source: Voice of America