BEIRUT: Syrian troops have broken a year-long rebel siege on Aleppo’s main prison after heavy fighting with Al-Qaeda fighters and other Islamist brigades, activists and pro-government television stations reported Thursday.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based anti-regime group which has a network of activists around the country, said government forces entered the prison at dawn, ending a siege that began in April 2013 in an attempt by rebels to free opposition inmates inside.
Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen and Al-Manar television stations, which are close to the Syrian government and have reporters in different parts of Syria, said government troops ended the siege.
The sprawling prison, which holds an estimated 4,000 inmates, has witnessed deadly clashes between government and opposition forces for the past year. Rebels repeatedly have barreled suicide car bombs into the front gates and fought guards and troops holed up inside.
On Tuesday, government forces, backed by the air force, began a final push toward the prison. The Observatory said that detainees from the opposition provided it with a list of names of those who were still alive because of fears that government forces might kill some of them and "claim that they died during the rebels' siege of the prison."
Aleppo has been carved into rebel- and government-controlled areas since opposition fighters launched an offensive in the north in mid-2012. The Syrian army appears intent on taking opposition-held parts of the country's major cities before the country's June presidential election.
Aleppo Central Prison lies on a highway about 6 kilometers north of the city of Aleppo, once Syria's prized commercial center. The war devastated the city, leaving rebels controlling its east as Assad's forces hold its west.
"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 barrels bombs struck the area around the prison."
Saeed said the next target of government forces appears to be the nearby town of Handarat, then the Kindi Hospital in an attempt to close rebel supply lines from the countryside into Aleppo.
He added that after the capture of the prison, Assad's forces are now close to a command center of the Islamic Front alliance, a coalition of seven rebel groups fighting the government. The center is in an army infantry base that was captured by rebels two years ago.
Activists say more than 160,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict started in March 2011 as largely peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad's rule that deteriorated into civil war. The fighting has also uprooted nine million people from their homes, with over six million Syrians seeking shelter in safer parts of the country and at least 2.7 million fleeing to neighboring countries.
In Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross said they are delivering food, along with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, 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.
"While this is a breakthrough of sorts, we hope to do more in the coming days and weeks," he said in a statement released Wednesday.
The statement said a three-truck, joint ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent convoy crossed front lines to bring food to over 30,000 people in the towns of Al Bab and Manbij, where thousands of displaced people have sought refuge in recent months. It said more food will be distributed in the coming days in other areas.