BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops backed by airstrikes broke a yearlong rebel siege of a prison in the northern city of Aleppo Thursday, allowing President Bashar Assad’s forces to close in on a nearby command center of a coalition of Islamist rebel groups, opposition activists said.
The sprawling prison has witnessed deadly clashes between government and opposition forces for the past year. Rebels repeatedly have barreled suicide car bombs into the front gates and fought guards and troops holed up inside, seeking to free an estimated 4,000 inmates.
Aleppo has been carved into rebel- and government-controlled areas since opposition fighters launched an offensive in Syria’s largest city in mid-2012. The Syrian army has made gains in the center of the country and is seeking to advance against opposition-held areas in the north ahead of next month’s presidential election.
It would take a monumental army push to take back the entire city, and it is very unlikely to happen before the June 3 vote. But the army advances are a sign that the momentum in the city may be starting to shift decisively in favor of the government.
The reward is two-fold for Assad: The more territory he can claw back, the more places he can potentially hold balloting. Syrian officials have said voting will only take place in government controlled territory.
Battlefield gains in Aleppo will also give Assad more reason to claim he is winning, and portray himself as the only one capable of restoring security to the country.
The conflict has proven a conundrum for the international community, which has been unable to push the sides toward peace and now faces the prospect of Assad winning a new seven-year mandate in elections.
Russia and China on Thursday vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution referring the Syrian crisis to the International Criminal Court for investigation of possible war crimes – the fourth time the two countries have used their veto power as permanent council members to deflect action against Assad’s government. The 13 other council members voted in favor of the resolution.
The march toward Aleppo prison holds significant moral importance for Assad. The situation inside the facility was at one point so dire that the army was obliged to airdrop food to besieged government troops inside. The army had been trying to for months to advance with no success.
Government forces began a final push on Tuesday and entered the prison at dawn Wednesday after rebels besieging the facility fled under intense aerial bombardment of explosives-packed barrels, according to Aleppo-based activists and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Observatory expressed fears that government forces might kill some of the inmates and “claim that they died during the rebels’ siege of the prison.”
Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen and Al-Manar television stations, which are close to the Syrian government and have reporters in different parts of Syria, also reported that government troops ended the siege, which began in April 2013.
State-run television showed army troops celebrating inside the prison.
Aleppo Central Prison lies on a highway about six kilometers (four miles) north of the city of Aleppo, once Syria’s prized commercial center. The war devastated the city, leaving rebels controlling its east as Assad’s forces hold its west.
“The air raids were astonishing,” said Ibrahim Saeed, an activist based in Aleppo province. “The air force tipped the balance of power. More than 100 barrel bombs struck the area around the prison.”
Saeed said the next target of government forces appears to be the nearby town of Handarat, followed by the Kindi Hospital in an attempt to cut off rebel supply lines from the countryside into Aleppo.
He added that after the capture of the prison, Assad’s forces are now close to a command center of the Islamic Front alliance, a powerful coalition of seven rebel groups fighting the government. The center is in an army infantry base that was captured by rebels two years ago.
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 9 million people from their homes, with over 6 million Syrians seeking shelter in safer parts of the country and at least 2.7 million fleeing to neighboring countries.
In Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it is working with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to deliver food for over 60,000 people displaced by violence in opposition and government-held areas in Aleppo province.
“This assistance is the result of months of negotiations with various parties,” said Boris Michel, the head of the ICRC delegation in Syria. “The areas we reached in the last few days had not received any humanitarian aid for nine months. The needs are significant.”
The statement said a three-truck, joint ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent convoy crossed front lines to bring food to over 30,000 people in the towns of Al Bab and Manbij, where thousands of displaced people have sought refuge in recent months. It said more food will be distributed in the coming days in other areas.
Associated Press writer John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.