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Syrian army takes district near Aleppo - monitor, media unit

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Syrian army and its allies took a small district on the outskirts of Aleppo from rebels on Wednesday, a war monitor and a military media unit run by Damascus ally Hezbollah said.

The advance was the army’s first from its lines in Aleppo city since rebels departed their enclave there in December, and came as government and opposition delegations arrived in Geneva for peace talks sponsored by the United Nations.

“The Syrian army and its allies control Souq al-Jibs, west of Assad suburb in southwest Aleppo,” said the Hezbollah military media unit in a message. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said the army had taken the district.

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has relied closely on allies such as Russia, Iran and Shi’ite militias, including Hezbollah, to make steady gains against rebels in western parts of the country and drive them from Aleppo in December.

Rebel forces in the area, which include both jihadist and nationalist groups, have periodically shelled parts of government-held Aleppo from positions in the western countryside nearby since the fighting inside the city stopped.

Clashes on the western side of Aleppo and its surroundings as the army and its allies advanced were accompanied by heavy shelling and aerial bombardment, said the Observatory, a Britain-based war monitor.

After the rebels were driven from their Aleppo enclave in December, Russia and Turkey - important foreign backers for the opposing sides in the war - sponsored a ceasefire aimed at being a prelude to peace talks.

However, although the intensity of fighting has calmed somewhat, violence continues across the country.

Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Tom Heneghan