BEIRUT: Syrian troops battled rebels Monday over a strategic Aleppo district that could be key to securing a nearby prison and laying siege to the city's rebel-held east.
The Al-Watan daily, which is close to the government, said troops had advanced in the Sheikh Najjar district of Syria's second city and onetime economic hub.
"The army has achieved new progress in Sheikh Najjar industrial city... during its military operation to cleanse the vicinity of the Aleppo central prison and lift the siege on it," the newspaper said.
The prison has been attacked multiple times by rebels hoping to free the approximately 3,500 detainees inside, who are reportedly being held in dire conditions.
In early February rebels launched a major assault on the facility, beginning with a suicide car bombing at its main entrance.
Opposition forces were able to overrun parts of the facility for hours, before regime warplanes unleashed a bombing campaign against them. The rebels were pushed back, but retained control of part of the sprawling complex.
Large parts of the fence surrounding the building collapsed during the attack, and the rebels have continued to try to penetrate the facility.
Rebels carried out another suicide bombing at the prison Thursday, killing at least eight soldiers.
Al-Watan on Monday quoted "military experts" as saying that army units were battling to take strategic areas in Sheikh Najjar that overlook the outskirts of the prison.
The newspaper said the army hoped to station artillery there to help fend off attacks on the prison "which have intensified in recent days."
Nazeer al-Khatib, an opposition activist from Aleppo, said his contacts there had confirmed the fighting in Sheikh Najjar.
"Ahrar al-Sham and other members of the Islamic Front (rebel alliance) have deployed reinforcements to the Sheikh Najjar front," said Khatib.
"The most intense fighting is happening there, because the rebels know that should it fall to regime hands, Aleppo will be under siege, like areas of southern and eastern Damascus."
Aleppo has been largely divided between government control in the west of the city and rebel control in the east since fighting broke out there in mid-2012.
But regime forces have made advances on the southeastern outskirts of the city in recent months, securing and reopening the international airport there.