Syrian government forces capture more areas in Aleppo

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian government forces and their allies captured new ground on the edge of the contested northern city of Aleppo on Thursday, tightening the siege on rebel-held parts of the city, state media and an activist group said.

The latest push came after pro-government troops recaptured several military academies over the weekend that they had lost in attacks by insurgents a month ago.

The government advance also endangers talks between Russia and the United States over a possible Aleppo cease-fire. The city, Syria's largest and once its commercial hub, has been the focus of fighting in recent months.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government forces backed by allied groups, including the Lebanese Hezbollah militant group, captured the Ramouseh neighborhood on the southern edge of Aleppo.

Syrian state news agency SANA quoted an unnamed military official as confirming that pro-government troops had captured large parts of Ramouseh as well as a nearby hill.

The Observatory reported that 40 days of fighting in Aleppo has killed nearly 700 civilians, including 160 children.

Captain Abdel-Razzak Abdel-Salam, a spokesman for the rebel group Nour el-Din Zengi, said that even while the Syrian government and its ally Russia were negotiating with the U.S. on a cease-fire in Aleppo they were plotting a "new betrayal" of besieged neighborhoods, violating the spirit of the talks aimed at allowing humanitarian aid into opposition districts.

He said that "events have overtaken, and all options are open," arguing that after the government offensive, the cease-fire talks are no longer on the table.

To the south, near the capital, the second phase of an agreement reached by the government for people to leave the Damascus suburb of Moadamiyeh was implemented Thursday, with nearly 150 people heading to a nearby suburb.

The evacuees were originally from the nearby Damascus suburb of Daraya but had been living in Moadamiyeh for nearly three years.

The 146 men, women and children left Moadamiyeh as part of an earlier deal reached to completely evacuate Daraya, which was besieged by the government for four years.

Once they had been searched and their identity cards were checked, the evacuees boarded a dozen government buses that took them to Harjalleh, another government-held area, near Damascus.

Bassam Karbouj, the chairman of Moadamiyeh council, told reporters that the evacuation is a completion of a process that was started a week ago, when some 300 civilians were taken out of the besieged suburb and transferred to makeshift centers in a government-held district.

He added that between 250 and 300 gunmen from Daraya remained in Moadamiyeh. They have the option of handing over their weapons under a government amnesty or being evacuated to the rebel-held northwestern city of Idlib.

In Turkey, military officials said Kurdish fighters in northern Syria opened fire at Turkish border guards, prompting retaliatory fire.

The officials said the fighters fired at the soldiers with automatic rifles from the area of Afrin, which is controlled by Syrian Kurdish militia, late on Wednesday. They said the soldiers responded with automatic fire "within the right to self-defense." The officials provided the information Thursday on condition of anonymity, in line with government rules.

The Kurdish-affiliated Hawar news agency said six Kurdish fighters were killed.

Turkey sent tanks and troops into Syria last month to drive Islamic State militants away from the border and to halt the advance of the U.S.-backed predominantly Kurdish militia. Ankara views the Syrian Kurdish forces as a terror organization because of their links to Turkey's outlawed Kurdish rebels.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Sarah El Deeb in Beirut and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey contributed to this report.

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