The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says Syria’s Russian-backed army has gained control of all of Aleppo’s Old City.

The Observatory, which monitors and reports on Syria’s civil war, says Syrian soldiers seized the nearby districts of Bab al-Hadid and Aghior early Wednesday morning, after rebel forces withdrew from their last positions in the city’s devastated eastern sector. The group said Tuesday that government fighters had controlled several neighborhoods in the Old City, including al-Shaar, the command center for opposition forces and civil society.

The fall of Aleppo’s Old City caps a major offensive launched by the army late last month to drive the rebels out of eastern Aleppo, which they have controlled since 2012, and marks a major victory for the government of President Bashar al-Assad in the now five-year-old conflict. The army says it now controls at least 75 percent of eastern Aleppo, which was once home to at least 250,000 civilians.

Parts of the historic Old City neighborhood, which was declared a UNESCO Heritage site 30 years ago, were devastated in the takeover, and witnesses say swaths of the historic sector are now virtually unrecognizable.

As fighting raged Tuesday, there were conflicting reports on Russian and U.S. attempts to negotiate a settlement that would possibly avert a last-stand battle pitting beleaguered and out-gunned rebel fighters against Syrian forces.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in Brussels for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, said he expected to meet this week with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, for further talks aimed at gaining the departure of rebels from the eastern sector.

Lavrov himself said Sunday that such a meeting would occur in Geneva either on Tuesday or Wednesday. But by late Tuesday, Reuters, quoting sources close to the situation, said no talks would take place this week.

Elsewhere Tuesday, observatory monitors said the death toll from a Russian and Syrian air offensive southwest of Aleppo had climbed past 300. A published observatory report said more than 1,000 others, many of them women and children, had been wounded.

The observatory said new strikes targeted eight refugee settlements in Idlib province, about 100 kilometers southwest of Aleppo. The statement identified a full third of the fatalities as children.

Russia announced last month that it was resuming airstrikes in Idlib and Homs provinces in support of the Assad government.

Hopes for a quick truce in Aleppo were dealt another blow Monday when Russia, for the sixth time this year, vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have provided for a seven-day cease-fire to allow humanitarian aid to reach the battered city.

Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin criticized the resolution, saying “these kinds of pauses have been used by fighters to reinforce their ammo [munitions] and to strengthen their positions.” New Zealand envoy Gerard van Bohemen later countered that characterization, calling the Churkin argument “hollow fiction.”

Tens of thousands of civilians are thought to be trapped in eastern Aleppo despite a huge surge of refugees fleeing in the past two weeks for the relative safety of government-controlled western districts.

Monitors last week estimated that 18,000 civilians in the east had moved into western neighborhoods and more than 9,000 others into a Kurdish-controlled district.

U.N. special envoy Stefan de Mistura said last week that he expected eastern Aleppo to fall to government forces by the end of December, without a negotiated settlement to end the four-year rebel occupation.

Source: Voice of America

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The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says Syria's Russian-backed army has gained control of all of Aleppo's Old City. The Observatory, which monitors and reports on Syria's civil war, says Syrian soldiers seized the nearby districts of Bab al-Hadid and Aghior early Wednesday morning, after rebel forces withdrew from...