BEIRUT: Syrian troops and their paramilitary allies inched closer to seizing a central prison in Aleppo Wednesday, with intense shelling and barrel bombs killing at least 50 rebel fighters, state media and opposition activists said.
The sprawling prison, along with its estimated 4,000 inmates, has been caught in the deadly stalemate of the war for months.
Rebels have been besieging the prison for the past year, and have repeatedly rammed suicide car bombs into the front gates and clashed with guards and troops holed up inside in an effort to capture the facility.
The army appears intent on taking opposition-held parts of the country’s major cities before the presidential election on June 3.
State news agency SANA said army units have regained full control of the town of Hilan, near the prison, and are “advancing toward the surrounding areas after tightening control” of the facility.
Rami Abdel-Rahman, the director of the Britain-based anti-regime group the Syrian Observatory for Human rights, said Assad’s forces are positioned about 500 meters away from the complex.
He said there was heavy artillery shelling in the area, with government forces dropping at least 30 barrel bombs from military helicopters over the past 24 hours. At least 50 rebels have been killed in the shelling, he said.
An activist in the city who works with the Aleppo Media Center told the Associated Press that the government’s push to reach the prison complex began Tuesday morning.
By mid-Wednesday, the “regime’s tanks had come to about 500 meters away from the [prison] building,” said the activist, who uses the name Abu Joud al-Mujahid.
There were ferocious clashes between Assad’s troops and rebels throughout Wednesday, and the opposition fighters are fast retreating from the areas because their weapons are no match for the government’s superior firepower.
“They are using warplanes and dropping barrel bombs from helicopters. No weapon is being spared,” Mujahid said via Skype.
The sprawling prison lies on a highway about 6 kilometers north of Aleppo. Rebels also blew up the Kindi hospital, which the army had used as a position before its takeover by the opposition, in a bid to prevent government forces from retaking the facility in their latest push.
“The building is very big, and it could be used by regime troops [should they reclaim it] to monitor supply routes used by the rebels,” an anti-regime activist told AFP. About 150 women are held in the prison. The detainees are a mix of common criminals, rebels and opposition activists and supporters, according to the London-based Syrian Network for Human Rights. Around 1,300 of the inmates have completed their sentences but have not been freed by authorities, the group says.
At least 150 detainees have been killed in clashes around the facility, which has become a symbol of a deadly stalemate of Syria’s 3-year-old conflict.
The developments came as the Red Cross said it had begun a major distribution of emergency rations on both sides of the battle lines around Aleppo, its first since October.
The Syrian government this week finally approved the plan, submitted in January, to feed 60,000 displaced people in rural areas, International Committee of the Red Cross President Peter Maurer said.
The ICRC delivery in Aleppo, which follows one in the besieged Damascus suburb of Barzeh February, should help to build confidence among the warring parties that its operation is “humanitarian and not politically tainted,” Maurer said.
Separately, Russia dubbed as a “publicity stunt” a planned U.N. Security Council vote Thursday on a resolution to refer Syria’s civil war to the International Criminal Court, warning that the move would be detrimental to attempts to broker peace.
Moscow has long been against referring the Syrian conflict to The Hague-based ICC for possible prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin emphatically reinforced Moscow’s position Wednesday.
When asked if Russia planned to veto the French-drafted resolution, Churkin told reporters: “Yes we do.”
“The fact that the resolution is going to a vote we regard as simply a publicity stunt, which will have a detrimental effect unfortunately on our joint efforts in trying to resolve politically the crisis in Syria,” he said.