Syrian rebels including jihadists have launched a major offensive against government forces to break the months-long siege of Aleppo, it has emerged.
The assault started with a barrage of rocket fire into the western government-held side of the battered city that killed at least 15 civilians and injured dozens more, a monitor said.
Pictures have emerged of the rebels’ makeshift military vehicles driving towards the front line in the western neighbourhood of the city.
Abu Yusef Muhajir, a military commander and spokesman for the powerful Ahrar al-Sham rebel group, said the operation involved an array of opposition factions.
Today’s assault, employing heavy shelling and suicide car bombs, was mainly focused on the city’s western edge by rebels based outside Aleppo.
It included Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a former affiliate of al Qaeda previously known as the Nusra Front, and groups fighting under the Free Syrian Army banner. There were conflicting accounts of advances in areas on the city’s outskirts.
Photographs showed insurgents approaching Aleppo in tanks, armoured vehicles, bulldozers, make-shift mine sweepers, pick-up trucks and on motorcycles, and showed a large column of smoke rising in the distance after an explosion.
Rebel groups ‘announce the start of the battle to break the siege of Aleppo, which will end the regime occupation of western Aleppo and break the siege on the people trapped inside,’ he said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebel groups were firing rockets into west Aleppo as well as at government positions east of the city including the Nairab military airport.
Rebels also fired rockets into Latakia province, a coastal regime stronghold, hitting areas near the Hmeimim military base that is used by government ally Russia.
Rocket fire into Latakia killed at least one person and wounded six others, the Observatory and state media said.
Rebels said they had taken several positions from government forces. But a Syrian military source said the attack on the western side of the city had been thwarted. A state television station reported that the army had destroyed four car bombs.
Abu Anas al-Shami, a member of the Fateh al-Sham media office, told Reuters from Syria the group had carried out two ‘martyrdom operations’, after which its fighters had gone in and had been able to ‘liberate a number of important areas’. A third such attack had been carried out by another Islamist group.
A senior official in the Levant Front, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) group, said: ‘There is a general call-up for anyone who can bear arms.’
‘The preparatory shelling started this morning,’ he added.
Heavy rebel bombardment, with more than 150 rockets and shells, struck southwestern districts, the Observatory said.
Fateh al-Sham played a big part in a rebel attack in July that managed to break the government siege on eastern Aleppo for several weeks before it was reimposed.
Abu Youssef al-Mouhajir, an official from the powerful Ahrar al-Sham Islamist group, said the extent of cooperation between the different rebel factions was unusual, and that the largest axis of attack was on the western edge of the city.
‘This long axis disperses the enemy and it provides us with good cover in the sense that the enemy’s attacks are not focused,’ he said.
The powerful role played by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, listed by many countries as a terrorist group, has complicated Western policy towards supporting the anti-Assad opposition.
The United States has prevented more powerful weapons such as anti-aircraft missiles from being supplied to rebels partly out of fear they could end up in jihadist hands.
Syria’s civil war, now in its sixth year, has killed hundreds of thousands of people, displaced half the country’s pre-war population, dragged in regional and global powers and caused a refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe.
Grad rockets were launched at Aleppo’s Nairab air base before the assault began said Zakaria Malahiji, head of the political office of the Aleppo-based Fastaqim rebel group, adding that it was going to be ‘a big battle’.
Last month, government forces launched an operation to recapture the east, backed by Russian air power.
The operation has killed hundreds of civilians and destroyed infrastructure including hospitals, prompting international condemnation.
List of armed opposition factions so far involved in the offensive in W. Aleppo.