Fighting erupts north of Aleppo as ceasefire expires

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian government forces battled rebels north of Aleppo on Thursday as a ceasefire expired in the city itself, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and rebel sources said.

The fighting was focused around the rebel-held Handarat area which is important because it is near the last route into opposition-held areas of Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city before the conflict and now divided between the government and rebels.

The Observatory said pro-government forces had launched an attack in the area, supported by air strikes targeting Handarat in addition to the only road into rebel-held areas of the city.

At least five insurgents were killed in the fighting, the British-based Observatory said.

The rebel sources said government forces had initially captured some ground, but this was later recovered.

A statement from a joint operations room including the Syrian army, Lebanese Hezbollah and other allies, seen by Reuters, accused the insurgents of violating the ceasefire and said government-aligned forces would carry on fighting.

“The units of the Syrian army and local defense forces are still getting embroiled in violent clashes” around Handarat but have made advances, it said.

Slideshow ( 2 images )

Fighting continued to the north and south of Aleppo as army units tried to drive out rebels there and “achieve security and stability” in the province, the statement said.

In a southern district of Aleppo city, insurgent sniper fire killed three people, the Observatory said. State news agency SANA said gunfire had killed at least two people.

The 48-hour truce in the city of Aleppo announced by the Syrian military on Monday ended at 1 a.m. (6 p.m. ET).

There was no immediate announcement of an extension of the truce, which was brokered by the United States and Russia with the aim of reviving a wider cessation of hostilities agreement that has broken down in much of western Syria.

The acceleration of fighting in the Aleppo area contributed to the collapse of peace talks in Geneva last month.

The U.N. Security Council expressed outrage at all recent attacks against civilians in Syria in a broad statement agreed on Thursday, a week after Russia blocked a British-drafted text that would have condemned a surge in violence in Aleppo.

In a statement drafted by Egypt, New Zealand and Spain, the 15-member council warned that attacks against civilians, civilian objects, such as hospitals, and indiscriminate attacks “may amount to war crimes.”

Reporting by Tom Perry, additional reporting Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by Gareth Jones and Marguerita Choy