BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian tanks backed by massive air power rolled into the grounds of a sprawling prison in Aleppo on Thursday, breaking a yearlong rebel siege and allowing President Bashar Assad's forces to close in on a nearby rebel command center.
State TV showed troops celebrating inside the prison complex, showcasing a rare government triumph in the mostly rebel-held north less than two weeks before President Bashar Assad's expected re-election.
The Syrian army has made gains around the capital, Damascus, seat of Assad's power, and in the center of the country. It has now turned its attention to the north and rebel-held parts of the south, where it seeks to advance ahead of the June 3 vote dismissed by Western powers as a sham.
A monumental army push would be needed to take Aleppo, Syria's largest city, and that is very unlikely to happen in the next few weeks. But the army advances are a sign that the momentum in the city may be shifting decisively in favor of the government.
The reward is two-fold for Assad: The more territory he can claw back, the more places he can potentially hold balloting; Syrian officials have said voting will take place only in government-controlled territory. Military gains in Aleppo will also give Assad more reason to claim he is winning the war and portray himself as the only one capable of restoring security to the country.
The move on the Aleppo prison came a few hours before Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution referring the Syrian crisis to the International Criminal Court for investigation of possible war crimes. It was the fourth time the two countries have used their veto power as permanent council members to deflect action against Assad's government.
Aleppo, once Syria's prized commercial center, has been carved into rebel- and government-controlled areas since opposition fighters launched an offensive in mid-2012.
Aleppo Central Prison, which lies on a highway about six kilometers (four miles) north of the city, has been caught in the middle of the country's civil war, its 4,000 inmates, including women, trapped in a hell of daily battles, fear and disease. The situation inside the facility was at one point so dire that the army was obliged to airdrop food to besieged government troops who were trying to fend off rebels trying to free the inmates.
Government forces stormed the prison at dawn Wednesday after rebels fled under intense aerial bombardment, according to Aleppo-based activists and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which had expressed fears that government forces might kill some of the inmates and claim that they died during the rebels' siege of the prison.
"The air raids were astonishing," said Ibrahim Saeed, an activist based in Aleppo province. "The air force tipped the balance of power. More than 100 barrel bombs struck the area around the prison."
Footage broadcast on Syria state TV showed soldiers celebrating inside the prison grounds, speaking to a reporter as inmates cheered and flashed victory signs in their cells. Women prisoners ululated and shouted: "God bless the army," though the scenes appeared carefully scripted.
The pictures showed soldiers behind sandbags on the first floor of a building under construction, raising their arms and chanting. The burnt-out shells of three buses stood in front of the prison walls. In the background was the mustard-colored main building, pockmarked from the fighting. In an empty cell shown in the footage, a shell had punched a hole in the ceiling. Bunk beds lay scattered about at odd angles.
A rebel commander in northern Aleppo who uses the name Abu Thabet said the regime was desperate to get the prison "to lift morale" and control a road that connects Aleppo to its suburbs.
The breakthrough in Aleppo allowed Syrian forces to close in on a nearby command center of the Islamic Front alliance, a powerful coalition of seven rebel groups fighting the government. The center is located in an army infantry base that rebels captured two years ago.
In Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it is working with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to deliver food for over 60,000 people displaced by violence in opposition and government-held areas in Aleppo province.
"This assistance is the result of months of negotiations with various parties," said Boris Michel, the head of the ICRC delegation in Syria. "The areas we reached in the last few days had not received any humanitarian aid for nine months. The needs are significant."
Also Thursday, the global chemical weapons watchdog said the last 100 metric tons of Syria's declared stockpile of precursors for poison gas and nerve agents have been packed and are ready for transport, though the Assad regime said it's too risky to move them.
Syria is already well behind schedule in removing its stockpile of some 1,300 tons of chemicals that it declared to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons last year. All the chemicals were supposed to have been destroyed by the end of June, but that deadline now appears out of reach. The U.S. says it needs 60 days to destroy hundreds of tons of highly toxic chemicals on board a specially equipped ship.
Associated Press writers John Heilprin in Geneva, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, and Bassem Mroue, Ryan Lucas and Yasmine Saker in Beirut contributed to this report.