BEIRUT (AP) — A Syrian monitoring group alleged Tuesday that rebels are preventing dozens of families from fleeing eastern Aleppo as Russian-backed government forces intensify their bombardment of the besieged quarter.
Such claims are difficult to verify and often distorted owing to the propaganda value of the matter. Syrian and Russian state media maintain that rebels are holding the enclave's 275,000 remaining inhabitants hostage to use as human shields, even as the government's air force pounds the east's hospitals and first responder groups.
Opposition outlets on the other hand want to show that civilians will never accept returning to the government's heavy-handed rule. Russia has backed Syrian President Bashar Assad with vast military support as he fights to put down an uprising that is approaching its sixth year. Over 300,000 people have been killed in the raging war.
A resident of Aleppo's frontline Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood corroborated the report by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, which maintains a network of contacts among both government and anti-government institutions.
Hajj Mohammed al-Jasim told The Associated Press his uncles' families were trying to cross from the Bustan al-Basha neighborhood in the east to the predominantly Kurdish enclave of Sheikh Maqsoud.
"They've wanted to cross for a while because the circumstances have become very difficult," said al-Jasim, who confirmed his location near the al-Riz crossing via phone location services.
He said his relatives told him they were prepared to cross during the day but were advised by three rebel groups to wait until dark.
"Then in the evening, (the rebels) began to fire at the crossing" to prevent passage, al-Jasim said. He said about fifty families were waiting to cross.
The autonomous Kurdish defense forces, the YPG, have promised housing in Sheikh Maqsoud to any families who cross, or secure passage on to opposition-held Azaz or Kurdish-held Afrin, two towns north of Aleppo, according to the al-Jasim.
The Observatory reported 100 families are waiting to cross, while Ahmad Hiso Araj, a political official for the YPG-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces, said 250 civilians were prepared to go. He said they were communicating with their relatives in Sheikh Maqsoud to evacuate Bustan al-Basha.
The government has recently stepped up its bombardment of eastern Aleppo, and by Sunday it had knocked out every hospital in the quarter, according to the World Health Organization. The Observatory says at least 140 civilians, including 18 children, have been killed.
The U.N.'s chief humanitarian official Stephen O'Brien said Monday the conditions had gone "from terrible to terrifying and now barely survivable."
U.N. humanitarian official Jan Egeland warned two weeks ago that the east was running out of food. The area has been under siege by pro-government forces since August.
The government's air assault has been accompanied by pro-government troops pushing their way into neighborhoods on the edges of eastern Aleppo.
Fighting on the southern edge, in the Sheik Saeed neighborhood intensified Tuesday. A major rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham, said one of its leading commanders was killed there as they repelled advances by government troops.
In Damascus, Syria's military command announced it was forming a new anti-terrorism commando force, calling on volunteers interested in "achieving the final victory against terrorism" to apply.
The announcement, which named the new anti-terrorism force the Fifth Corps, didn't specify where the force would be deployed. After nearly six years of combat, the Syrian conscription-based armed forces has become overstretched and has increasingly relied on its regional allies that have boosted its numbers and capabilities. Iran, Iraq and Lebanon's Hezbollah group have sent in hundreds of fighters who have fought alongside government troops, sometimes leading combat units, in decisive battles against armed opposition groups and extremist militants.
This comes a year after the Syrian armed forces announced the formation of the Fourth Corps, also an anti-terrorism force, soon after Russia began its military operations alongside the Syrian government.
The Syrian army declaration read on State TV also comes as the pace of government warnings to the residents of the besieged rebel-held part of eastern Aleppo city rises. An announcement Tuesday urged armed opposition groups to allow civilians to exit the besieged enclave through government-designated corridors. Another urged residents to cooperate with government forces. A third called on residents to avoid going out in the streets except in "dire need" and to stay clear of areas where armed groups operate.
Also on Tuesday, Syria's president received a Russian delegation in Damascus, headed by the Russian deputy prime minister, in a show of close ties between the two governments in the face of international criticism.
And the Pentagon on Tuesday said a Nov. 18 U.S. military airstrike killed senior al-Qaida leader Abu Afghan al-Masri, who had ties to militant movements across the Middle East.