BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels launched a new push in the northern province of Aleppo on Thursday to capture key symbols of the government and stormed a major section of a prison there, freeing hundreds of prisoners in the process, activists said.
The advance came amid a relentless air campaign by government forces that killed at least 11 people in an opposition held neighborhood of the provincial capital of Aleppo. Activists said government aircraft dropped so-called barrel bombs — containers packed with explosives, fuel and scrap metal that inflict massive damage upon impact.
At least 246 people, including 73 children, have died in the past five days alone in similar aerial bombardment of the city, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The rebels on Thursday declared their intention to liberate Aleppo's central prison and the Kweiras military air base east of the city. Opposition fighters have been trying to capture the facilities for months.
The prison, in particular, has been caught in the deadly stalemate of Syria's civil war. Rebels have been besieging the facility, estimated to have around 4,000 prisoners, for almost a year. They have rammed suicide car bombs into the prison's front gates twice, lobbed shells into the compound and battled frequently with the hundreds of guards and troops holed up inside.
Thursday's push began when a suicide bomber from the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra brigade blew himself up at the gates. That was followed by a ground offensive during which rebels managed to gain control of most of the facility.
The Observatory said at least 300 prisoners were freed by the rebels. The anti-government Aleppo Media Center said rebels had gained control over the prison.
However, state-run Syrian television said the army foiled an attempt by "terrorist groups" to attack the prison.
Syria's revolt began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests before slowly shifting into a civil war. The conflict has killed more than 130,000 people, forced more than 2.3 million to seek refuge abroad, and sent sectarian tensions soaring across the region.
As the war increasingly became stalemated on the ground, the international community stepped up efforts to find a solution through negotiations.
Late last month, President Bashar Assad's government and the main Western-backed opposition group met in Switzerland for the first face-to-face peace talks of the war. The tumultuous week-long negotiations ended without making any significant progress, even on humanitarian issues — but the warring sides at least met.
In an apparent move forward, however small, the Syrian government said Thursday it had reached an agreement with the United Nations to secure the evacuation of hundreds of trapped civilians from besieged parts of the central city of Homs.
Syrian TV said the evacuation would take place "very soon."