Syria army advances in Aleppo after US drops Russia talks


Aleppo (Syria) (AFP)

Syrian regime forces advanced against rebels during intense street battles in the heart of Aleppo on Tuesday, after the United States abandoned talks with Russia aimed at reviving a ceasefire deal.

The UN rights chief appealed for action to halt the "ghastly avalanche of violence" unfolding in Syria's second city, which is reeling from some of the most brutal fighting in the five-year conflict.

The Syrian army announced a major Russian-backed military push nearly two weeks ago to capture the rebel-held eastern half of Aleppo, once the country's commercial hub.

On Tuesday, loyalist fighters seized several high-rise buildings from rebel groups in the city centre, pushing north towards other opposition districts.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitor, said the regime forces were "gradually advancing" after street battles on the front line dividing the rebel-held east from the government-controlled west.

"They are focusing on the tall buildings, which were once government administration buildings, because they can monitor entire streets and neighbourhoods from there," Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

AFP's correspondent in Aleppo said fierce bombardment on the southern edges of the city could be heard throughout the night, although it was quieter by dawn.

Syrian state news agency SANA reported that rebel shelling on the government-held west, including on the Aleppo University campus, left six people dead on Tuesday.

- 'Patience run out' -

More than 300,000 people have been killed since the conflict erupted in March 2011, and several attempts at securing a diplomatic solution to the war have fallen flat.

The United States and Russia back opposing sides in the conflict.

Washington announced late Monday that it would suspend joint efforts to reinstate a nationwide truce, accusing Moscow of abetting strongman Bashar al-Assad's assault on Aleppo.

"Everybody's patience with Russia has run out," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.

A US official said US Secretary of State John Kerry is "laser-focused" on finding a diplomatic solution, but his near-daily communication with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the crisis is over.

The US-Russia truce plan for Syria had envisioned an end to hostilities, increased aid deliveries to besieged populations, and eventual coordination between Moscow and Washington against jihadists.

US personnel sent to Geneva to set up the "Joint Implementation Center" with Russian officers will return home, said State Department spokesman John Kirby.

Russia and the US will keep a communications channel open to ensure their forces do not get in each other's way during "counterterrorism operations in Syria," he added.

Moscow blamed the United States for the agreement's collapse, saying Washington had never been able to separate rebels on the ground from the jihadist group Fateh al-Sham Front, formerly Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate.

"After failing to fulfil the agreements that they themselves worked out, they are trying to shift responsibility on to someone else," Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Monday.

- UN call for action -

UN rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein urged the Security Council to introduce a limit on its members' veto power, which would make it possible to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Previous bids to make such a referral have been vetoed by Russia.

"Faced with such a ghastly avalanche of violence and destruction, extraordinary steps must be taken," Zeid said in a statement, condemning the killing of 100 children in 10 days in east Aleppo.

"The UN Security Council should, without any further delay, adopt criteria to restrain members from using the veto when there are serious concerns that war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide may have been committed," he said.

On Monday, the largest hospital in the rebel-held side of Aleppo was completely destroyed in an aerial attack, according to the Syrian American Medical Society, which supports the facility.

Only five hospitals remain operational for the estimated 250,000 people living under crippling government siege in east Aleppo.

In northeast Syria, a suicide attack hit a wedding late Monday as the bride and groom were exchanging their vows, killing 33 people, a medical source said.

The Islamic State (IS) group appeared to claim the attack, saying that one of its members had fired on a gathering near Hasakeh city before blowing himself up, though it did not mention a wedding.

The bombing left rows of seats covered in blood at the wedding hall in Hasakeh province.

"I was taking pictures of the party, and all of a sudden I felt a huge explosion," said wedding photographer Walid Mohammad.

"I saw so many people die -- small kids, old people."