BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian military said on Monday it has gained control of 98 percent of eastern Aleppo, previously a rebel-held enclave, leaving only a small sliver of territory in the city packed with rebels and civilians who are being squeezed under fire.
The military statement came hours after Syrian forces, aided by Shiite militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, took Sheik Saeed, one of the largest neighborhoods in the southern part of the rebel territory, tightening the noose on the enclave.
The military also said its multi-pronged ground offensive on Monday captured the al-Fardous neighborhood, one of the most populated districts to the north of Sheik Saeed. Rami Abdurrahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the district remains under fire and that fighting continues there.
"The situation is very, very critical," said Ibrahim al-Haj, a member of the Syrian Civil Defense. "The military took many areas and we are now squeezed." Al-Haj had been on the move to find a place to keep him and his family away from the clashes and possible government capture.
In a map distributed by the military's media arm, a small sliver of land, a long rectangular shape in the city center abutting the western, government-held parts of the city, remained in rebel hands. It includes six neighborhoods, most of them still areas where fighting is still underway.
The Observatory said it estimates the rebels and the remaining civilians are now enclosed in seven percent of what was once the city's territory that rebels used to control.
Syrian troops backed by Russian airstrikes and militias from across the region launched a wide-scale offensive on eastern Aleppo last month and are on the verge of driving the rebels from the city. Doing so would hand President Bashar Assad his greatest victory yet in the Syrian civil war, now in its sixth year.
The offensive to retake rebel-held eastern Aleppo, which began on Nov. 26, followed an intensive aerial bombing campaign that knocked out most of the eastern sector's medical facilities, targeted civil defense and municipal vehicles and blocked roads with rubble. The eastern Aleppo rebel enclave was cut off from outside aid since July by a government siege.
Earlier on Monday morning, state TV aired footage from Sheik Saeed, one of eastern Aleppo's largest neighborhoods bordering some of the most crowded districts. A residential area, Sheik Saeed also has open agricultural fields that often gave an advantage to rebels fighting off past government advances.
The Observatory said government forces continued their bombing of the remaining rebel areas on Monday, including airstrikes on Bustan al-Qasr, near the government-controlled western part of Aleppo, and al-Fardous. The military later announced it seized al-Fardous.
State TV has lately been broadcasting every day images of hundreds of civilians fleeing areas where troops are advancing, pouring into western Aleppo. Those areas are only accessible through government-monitored crossing points.
A total rebel defeat in Aleppo, Syria's largest city and once its commercial center, would reverberate across the war-torn country, where opposition forces continue to hold out in smaller, scattered areas.
It would cap a string of government successes over the past year and provide a turning point in a war that has killed more than a quarter of a million people, displaced more than half of the country's population and defied all international efforts for a political solution.