Middle East

Aleppo prison siege 'broken by Syrian troops'

Syrian flag flies from Aleppo Central Prison (6 February 2014) Image copyright AFP
Image caption Rebels released several hundred inmates from Aleppo's central prison after a bloody battle in February

Government forces have broken a year-long rebel siege of a prison in Syria's northern city of Aleppo, reports say.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops had entered the complex, but this is not confirmed.

There are thousands of inmates at the prison, which has been the scene of fierce fighting for months as rebels have tried to capture it.

The area is strategically important as it lies near a key supply route for fighters in rebel-held parts of Aleppo.

On Wednesday, some 60,000 people in the rebel- and government-held parts of Aleppo province received food aid for the first time in months after the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was granted access.

ICRC president Peter Maurer said the operation, which will continue for the next few days, is the largest of its kind in recent months.

'Cut supply route'

The director of the Syrian Observatory, Rami Abdul Rahman, said "regular armed forces backed by pro-regime fighters" had been able "to break the siege of Aleppo Central Prison".

Tanks and armoured vehicles "entered the grounds of the prison", he told the AFP news agency.

Two Lebanese TV stations, which are close to the Syrian government, also reported that the siege had been ended by government troops.

Analysis: Jim Muir, BBC News, Beirut

The struggle for control of Aleppo's main prison, on the north-eastern outskirts of the city, has turned into one of those symbolic battles which will be seen as a bellwether when it is decided.

Government forces are reported to have advanced into the prison grounds, breaking through the rebel siege, for the first time in 13 months.

That doesn't mean they have brought it back under full control, and the state media are not yet claiming that. Fighting is reported to be continuing in the vicinity, and advances are often swiftly reversed.

But state forces are reported to have seized control of a major road linking rebel-held parts of eastern Aleppo to the Turkish border, leaving the rebels with only one supply route and at risk of being encircled.

If loyalist troops do win definitive control of the prison, it will be seen as another blow to the opposition in advance of the 3 June presidential election, following the rebel loss of central Homs early this month.

Fighters with the al-Nusra Front, which is affiliated to al-Qaeda, and other Islamist rebel groups began besieging the prison in April 2013.

They have since launched several attacks - including car bombs - trying to free as many as 3,000 inmates believed to be held inside the prison.

Briton Abdul Waheed Majeed died in February driving a truck bomb into the gates of the prison.

Image caption Online video footage purported to show rebel fighters flanking the prison walls in May 2013

Mr Abdul Rahman said the recapture of the prison and its surrounding area by government forces had blocked a "path for essential supplies to rebel fighters between areas they control and the Turkish border".

Aleppo is Syria's largest city, and has been firmly divided into opposition and loyalist controlled areas since mid-2012.

Government forces have kept up an aerial bombardment of rebel-held parts of the city in recent months, causing thousands of casualties.

The Syrian Observatory - which has a network of activists around the country reporting on the violence - says more than 162,000 people have been killed in the three-year conflict.

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