BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces on Tuesday captured new ground on the northwestern edge of the city of Aleppo, tightening the siege on rebel-held parts of the metropolis where some 300,000 people live, activists said.
The Syrian army also called on the opposition fighters to drop their weapons and give themselves up to authorities.
The push in which troops captured large parts of the city’s Layramoun area came as state TV reported that the General Army Command informed residents of rebel-held parts of Aleppo via telephone text messages that the army has created several safe passages and makeshift centers for whoever wants to leave those areas.
The army said it will keep providing Aleppo residents with basic necessities, but called all those living in rebel-held parts of the city to kick out “mercenaries and foreign fighters.”
Syrian government forces and their allies have been on the offensive around the Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and once its commercial center, for weeks. Since earlier this month, they have tightened their siege and residents in rebel-held parts have been reporting food shortages.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees reported intense fighting and airstrikes before the capture of Layramoun areas.
Lebanese Hezbollah group’s Al-Manar TV aired footage of government forces pushing in what appeared to be an industrial area near Aleppo. The station confirmed that President Bashar Assad’s forces capture of areas in Layramoun and near Castello road, the main link between rebel-held parts of Aleppo with the rest of the country.
Earlier Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that recent U.S.-Russia discussions should encourage moderate Syrian opposition groups to leave areas occupied by al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, thus helping to implement a truce. Lavrov spoke to Russian news agencies after talks in Laos with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who visited Moscow earlier this month.
Moscow and Washington have differed over the role of the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, with Russian calling the group terrorists and the U.S. asking Russia not to target them for fear of hitting the moderate opposition.
The U.S. has offered Russia a military partnership in Syria that includes intelligence and targeting sharing and even joint bombing operations.
The proposal would address the Nusra Front, which has presented one of the most persistent obstacles in enforcing a cease-fire in Syria. The group is engaged in a variety of local alliances with other rebel groups the U.S. and its Arab allies want shielded by the cessation of hostilities. The al-Qaida affiliate’s fighters are often embedded with such groups on the battlefield or move between various militant formations.
The dispute over the Nusra Front has undermined the Russia- and U.S.-brokered truce with fighting continuing to rage in many areas in Syria.
Meanwhile, in Geneva, the U.N. was expected to hold talks involving high-level Russian and U.S. diplomats aimed at reviving the stalled Syria peace talks.
Tuesday’s closed-door discussions come as U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura works to resume talks between Assad’s government and opposition groups that were suspended in April. De Mistura has been hoping to convene talks in August.
The U.S. mission in Geneva said in a statement that Michael Ratney, the U.S. special envoy for Syria, and Russian deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov, would try to set the foundations to “maximize chances of a productive outcome” in a future round of talks.
Vasilyeva reported from Moscow. Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed to this report from Damascus, Syria.