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Hunger And Desperation: Aleppo Siege Tests Limits Of Endurance

AMMAN (Reuters) – As Syria’s government presses a fierce assault on eastern Aleppo, its siege is making life ever harder for civilians who are being forced to sift through garbage for food and scavenge firewood from bombed-out buildings.

With winter setting in, shortages of food, medicine and fuel coupled with intense air strikes and artillery bombardment are testing the limits of endurance among a population the United Nations estimates at 270,000 people.

“People are worn out … there are people today in Aleppo who are eating out of the trash,” said Mustafa Hamami, who lost two of his children and four other relatives when a six-storey apartment building was destroyed this week.

With government forces mounting their most concerted effort yet to capture the rebel-held east, these are the darkest days for the opposition in Aleppo since the beginning of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011.

Backed by Russian air support, the Syrian army and allied Shi’ite militia from Iran, Lebanon and Iraq have gradually blockaded the rebel-held east of the city this year, first cutting the northern lifeline to Turkey and then fully encircling it from the west and south.

Pro-government forces identified as Shi’ite militias by the rebels have in recent days launched a ground attack aiming to split the rebel-controlled territory by seizing areas including Hanano, where fierce battles were underway on Friday.

The fall of eastern Aleppo would be the biggest victory to date for Assad, crushing the rebellion in its most important urban stronghold. Fierce bombardment and air strikes of the area has killed hundreds of people since late September.

BABY FED BOILED RICE

A pack of four bread loaves now costs the equivalent of about $3 – at least five times higher than it was before the siege began in July. The city council offers limited quantities at a subsidized price. A kilo of meat costs $50, a kilo of sugar costs $18, both also several times higher than before the siege.

Rice, which is more readily available and has not risen as much, costs $3 a kilo.

“My wife is using boiled rice to feed our 11-month old baby. We can barely get one bottle of powdered milk a month,” said Abdullah Hanbali, who worked as an engineer before the war.

“People are not accustomed to just eating bread and a bit of rice. They are used to eating apples, cucumbers, lemons, butter, meat,” he said, speaking to Reuters from eastern Aleppo via the internet. “The weather is cold. You need nutrition.”

Residents say once-bustling markets are now devoid of shoppers. The few stalls with food to sell offer legumes, radishes, parsley, and other crops grown within the confines of the besieged area.

The United Nations says the last U.N. rations in Aleppo were distributed on Nov. 13. U.N. humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said on Thursday rebel groups had agreed to a plan for aid delivery and medical evacuations, but the United Nations was awaiting approval from Russia and Damascus.

Asked about any “Plan B”, he replied: “In many ways Plan B is that people starve”. He said that could not be allowed to happen.

The government has besieged numerous rebel-held areas of Syria throughout the war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, and the country has become partitioned into a patchwork of zones controlled by various combatants.

A number of the besieged areas near Damascus have succumbed to the government pressure in recent months, with rebels leaving to the northeastern province of Idlib in negotiated agreements with the government.

The desperation in eastern Aleppo has started to surface.

A brawl erupted last week outside the warehouse of a foreign charity that had been forced to suspend its distribution of food aid parcels as its supplies dried up. Two charity workers said people waiting for food had forced it to hand over all the remaining stock.

NO WORK, INCOME

“None of the charities and NGOs have food parcels to distribute to needy people, and hunger is starting to appear in some families,” said Mohamad Aref Sharifa, a councilor in the opposition-run city council.

“There is dissatisfaction among some civilians, especially in the poorest areas, because there is no work or income and prices are high,” Sharifa added.

The government appears to be hoping that desperation will turn into unrest. The army has called on residents to rise up against rebels it has accused of hoarding food and using civilians as human shields.

But with many residents of eastern Aleppo sympathetic to the opposition and deeply distrustful of Assad, there has been no sign of major unrest targeted at rebel fighters. Many families have relatives fighting with the rebellion.

The commander of one of the biggest rebel groups in eastern Aleppo, the Jabha al-Shamiya, told Reuters this week they planned to set up kitchens in poor neighborhoods to provide residents with at least one meal a day.

“We are also moving toward opening projects to produce methane gas,” added the commander, Abu Abdelrahman Nour.

(This story has been refiled to add dropped word in first paragraph)

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut; Editing by Tom Perry and Pravin Char)

IMAGE: Children collect firewood amid damage and debris at a site hit yesterday by airstrikes in the rebel held al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria November 17, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail/File Photo

Aid Workers: Russian And Syrian Missiles Hit Aleppo, Destroying Hospital

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – Russian warplanes and their Syrian government allies battered rebel-held areas in and around Aleppo on Saturday, and rebels and aid workers accused them of destroying one of the city’s main hospitals and killing at least two patients.

M10, the city’s main trauma hospital, in eastern Aleppo, was struck as the United States and its allies urged Russia, which is trying to crush resistance to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to halt the bombing and reach a diplomatic resolution.

Saturday’s air strikes focused on major supply lines into rebel-held areas of Aleppo – the Castello Road and Malah district and around the Handarat camp.

Fighting also raged in the city in the Suleiman al Halabi neighborhood, the front line to the north of Aleppo’s Old City and in the residential Bustan al Basha quarter.

Rebels and rescuers said at least seven missiles were dropped on the hospital, more commonly known as Sakhour, by both Russian jets and Syrian helicopters.

An American relief organization said two patients were killed and 13 injured in the attack, which was the second on the hospital in less than a week.

“The hospital is now out of service completely. There’s destruction to walls, infrastructure, equipment and generators. There are no more guards or staff left. It’s complete darkness,” said Mohammad Abu Rajab, a radiologist in the hospital.

Footage of the bombed hospital on social media showed extensive damage.

The attack drew immediate condemnation from France and Germany. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the shelling of healthcare structures and personnel in Aleppo amounted to war crimes, adding: “Their perpetrators will be held to account.”

“The bombing of Aleppo needs to finally stop! Whoever wants to fight terrorists does not attack hospitals!” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier tweeted.

The U.S envoy to the United Nations last week called Russia’s actions in Syria “barbarism,” not counter-terrorism.

An official for U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration condemned the bombing, citing “total disregard” for medical professionals and those needing their help.

“Reports of yet another hospital being destroyed further demonstrates the total disregard for the lives of medical professionals and their patients who need critical care because of the Assad regime and Russia’s relentless campaign against the Syrian people.”

Rebels said Moscow and the Syrian army have for months been targeting power plants, hospitals and bakeries to force into surrender the nearly 250,000 believed trapped in the city.

Hundreds of people have been killed in indiscriminate bombing of residential areas and many hundreds more wounded, with little access to treatment in hospitals that lack basic supplies.

The army, aided by hundreds of Iranian-backed militias who have arrived in Aleppo, have backed up the air campaign with a ground offensive on several frontlines.

“The regime is spearheading an attack on all fronts and is trying to open more than one major front and of course there are a lot of amassing of troops mostly based in Handarat,” Abu Haidar, a commander in Fastaqim, one of the rebel groups inside Aleppo, said via internet messaging.

In a telephone conversation with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was ready to consider more ways to normalize the situation in Aleppo, the ministry said.

But Lavrov criticized Washington’s failure to separate moderate rebel groups from those the Russians call terrorists, which had allowed forces led by the group formerly known as the Nusra front to violate the U.S.-Russian truce agreed on Sept. 9.

The United States made clear it would not, at least for now, carry through a threat made on Wednesday to halt the diplomacy if Russia did not take immediate steps to end the violence.

Moscow and Assad spurned the ceasefire to launch the new offensive, potentially the biggest and most decisive battle of the civil war, which is now in its sixth year.

An army source quoted in state media said its forces had made advances, which was denied by rebels.

A news commentary by the state-run Ikhbariyah said “high level coordination from the air and ground by Syrian and Russian warplanes” had allowed the two allies to “successful hit locations where terrorist groups had dug in.”

But rebels said Syrian troops backed by fresh reinforcements from Iranian-backed militias were struggling to make any gains in a ground offensive in a key frontline in the old city.

“They are shelling the old city heavily after another failed attempt to gain ground. They have lost several fighters and we are steadfast,” said Abu Hamam, a rebel from the Failaq al-Sham group.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group that monitors the war, reported heavy bombardment by government forces and “back and forth” fighting in the Suleiman al-Halabi neighborhood.

Rebels led by the main Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham said on Saturday they had regained several areas in the Bustan al-Pasha district seized a day before, a strategic point that would allow the army to press into the heart of the rebel held eastern sector.

Russia joined the war exactly a year ago, tipping the balance of power in favor of Assad, who is also supported by Iranian ground forces and Shi’ite militia from Lebanon and Iraq.

The army said it would press its advantage after retaking last Thursday the strategic Handarat camp north of Aleppo that had already changed hands once since the start of the attack.

(Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Richard Chang)

IMAGE: People stand near craters and damaged buildings in a rebel-held area of Aleppo, Syria. Handout via Reuters TV

ISIS Is On The Defensive, Territory Shrinking In Syria and Iraq: U.S. Official

Islamic State has not gained significant ground since it took the Iraqi city of Ramadi a year ago, which it then lost in December, as the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria has been helped by better intelligence and better equipped local forces, a senior U.S. official said on Sunday.

Islamic State “is shrinking so they are very much on the defensive,” Brett McGurk, U.S. President Barack Obama’s special envoy in the fight against Islamic State, told a news conference in Amman.

Islamic State controls the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria and is proving a potent threat abroad, claiming credit for major attacks in Paris in November and Brussels in March.

McGurk said that U.S.-led coalition effort to capture Mosul and Raqqa was making progress.

“We are doing precision strikes in Mosul almost every day,” he added. “There is constant synchronized pressure,” he said.

McGurk cited a recent operation in which the coalition located and targeted Islamic State’s cash stores in Mosul and “took out hundreds of millions of dollars out of their coffers.”

This triggered a cash crunch that forced the militants to cut the pay of their fighters by half. He did not say when the operation took place.

Islamic militants’ nervousness was evidenced by the recent public executions in the city’s main square and a widespread clamp down on internet services in Mosul, McGurk said.

In Raqqa, McGurk said valuable intelligence gathered from a major trove of data and information obtained by U.S. special forces in a raid in eastern Syria last year allowed the coalition to better target militants, McGurk said.

“We will be beginning over the coming weeks and months a pressure campaign on Raqqa in all its aspects,” said McGurk.

President Barack Obama’s decision last month to raise the number of special forces in northern Syria [L2N17R0K4] which was the biggest expansion of U.S. ground troops since its civil war began, would help accelerate recent gains by U.S.-backed local forces, McGurk said.

He cited the militants’ loss of the strategic town of Shadadi in northeast Syria in February to the U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces formed from Kurdish and Arab forces.

“We don’t want U.S. forces cleaning these cities… We believe a sustainable model is for local people to take back their territories and homes and it’s took some time to organize local forces to do that. You can see we are starting to have some real momentum now,” he added.

Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

Photo: Brett McGurk, the United States’ envoy to the coalition against Islamic State, arrives to attend his a news conference in Amman, Jordan, May 15, 2016. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed