BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian army inched closer to seizing a central prison in the contested northern city of Aleppo Wednesday, with intense artillery shelling and military aircraft dropping dozens of crude bombs in the area and killing at least 50 rebel fighters, Syrian state media and opposition activists said.
The sprawling prison, along with its estimated 4,000 inmates, has been caught in the deadly stalemate of Syria’s civil war for months. Rebels have been besieging the facility for the past year, and have repeatedly barreled suicide car bombs into the front gates and clashed with guards and troops holed up inside in an effort to capture the prison.
Aleppo has been carved up into rebel- and government-controlled areas since opposition fighters launched an offensive in the north in mid-2012. The Syrian army appears intent on taking opposition-held parts of the country’s major cities before the presidential election on June 3.
State-run SANA news agency said army units have regained full control of the town of Heelan, near the Central Prison in Aleppo on Wednesday and are “advancing toward the surrounding areas after tightening control of the prison.”
Rami Abdurrahman, the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory said Assad’s forces are positioned about 500 meters away from the complex. He said there was heavy artillery shelling in the area, with government forces dropping at least 30 barrel bombs from military helicopters over the past 24 hours. At least 50 rebels have been killed in the shelling, Abdurrahman said.
An activist in Aleppo who works with the Aleppo Media Center told The Associated Press that the government’s push to reach the prison complex began Tuesday morning. By mid Wednesday, the “regime’s tanks have come to about 500 meters away from the (prison) building,” said the activist who uses the name Abu Joud al-Mujahid.
There were ferocious clashes between Assad’s troops and rebels throughout Wednesday, and the opposition fighters are fast retreating from the areas because their weapons are no match for government’s superior firepower.
“They are using warplanes and dropping barrel bombs from helicopters. No weapon is being spared,” al-Mujahid said in an interview over Skype.
The sprawling prison lies on a highway about 4 miles (6 kilometers) north of the city of Aleppo, once Syria’s prized commercial center but now devastated by war — with rebels controlling the eastern part of the city battling Assad’s forces controlling the other part.
The rebels, a mix of Islamic groups, including the Tawheed brigade and the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham that is part of the Islamic Front alliance, and the al-Qaida linked Nusra Front, launched their assault on the prison in April last year. Their aim was to free those inside, but also to capture the government-controlled enclave amid neighborhoods largely held by the opposition.
For Assad’s forces, the facility and the area around it is important because it would open the way to regaining control over the eastern road linking rebel-controlled areas of the city with the countryside to the north, which has supplied rebel areas with food and troops.
About 150 women are held in the prison. The detainees are a mix of common criminals, rebels and opposition activists and supporters, according to the London-based Syrian Network for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict through a network of activists on the ground. Around 1,300 of the inmates have completed their sentences but have not been freed by authorities, the group says.
At least 150 detainees have been killed in clashes around the facility that has become a symbol of a deadly stalemate of Syria’s 3-year-old conflict.
Activists say more than 160,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict started in March 2011 as largely peaceful protests against Assad’s rule that deteriorated into civil war. The fighting has also uprooted nine million people from their homes, with over six million Syrians seeking shelter in safer parts of the country and at least 2.7 million fleeing to neighboring countries.
More than 1 million of those Syrians are in neighboring Lebanon, leaving the much smaller nation of 4.5 million struggling to cope with the massive influx as many refugees desperately need housing, education and medical care.
Amnesty International said in a report released Wednesday that tens of thousands of Syrians are unable to get hospital treatment in Lebanon, leaving their chronic conditions and serious illnesses untreated. The crisis is due to a lack of funding for Syrians in Lebanon, where health care is privatized and expensive, Amnesty said. Some ill Syrians simply have been turned away.
The U.N.’s refugee agency subsidizes health care for Syrian refugees, but dwindling resources have forced the UNHCR to prioritize primary health care services and treatment of life-threatening illness.