Residents walk through rubble in worn-torn Aleppo
Residents walk through rubble in worn-torn AleppoReuters

Syrian state media on Saturday said that government forces captured the largest rebel-held district of Aleppo, in what would be a major breakthrough in its offensive to retake the entire second city.

Masaken Hanano was the first district the rebels took in the summer of 2012 in a move that divided Aleppo into an eastern area held by the insurgents and a western district controlled by government forces.

Since then, more than 250,000 civilians have been trapped under government siege for months in the rebel-held east, with dwindling food and fuel supplies.

The capture of Masaken Hanano in northeastern Aleppo is part of a major government offensive now in its 12th day that could isolate that part of the city from rebel-held areas in the south.

Since November 15, regime bombardment of eastern Aleppo has killed 212 civilians, including 27 children, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Regime forces had been advancing inside Masaken Hanano for several days, and on Friday state television said they were progressing "from three axes".

On Saturday, the state broadcaster and the official SANA news agency said President Bashar Al-Assad's armed forces, backed by their allies, had taken "full control" of the district.

"The armed forces retook full control of Masaken Hanano after having put an end to the presence of terrorists there," the state broadcaster said, referring to the rebels.

The Assad regime uses the term “terrorists” to describe all the rebel groups fighting to oust him, including both jihadist rebels and Western-backed rebel groups considered to be moderate.

SANA said government forces also recaptured the area around the district and "army engineers are clearing it of bombs and explosives planted by the terrorists in the streets and squares".

But Yasser al-Youssef, from the rebel group Nureddin al-Zinki, said fighting was still under way on the southern edges of Masaken Hanano, which he called a district of "strategic importance".

Youssef warned that if regime forces can advance to the adjacent neighborhood of Sakhur, then eastern Aleppo will be split in two.

The Observatory also said late Saturday that regime forces now completely controlled Masaken Hanano and had begun an assault on Sakhur and nearby Al-Haidariya.

The United Nations has a plan to deliver aid to Aleppo and evacuate the sick and wounded, which rebel factions have approved but which Damascus has yet to agree. Guarantees are also needed from regime ally Russia.

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura warned last week that time was "running out" for efforts to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe in Aleppo.

"We are running out of time, we are running against time," De Mistura warned after meeting Foreign Minister Walid Muallem.

Aid agencies fear that "instead of a humanitarian or a political initiative" there would be "an acceleration of military activities" in eastern Aleppo and elsewhere, the envoy told journalists.

"By Christmas... due to military intensification, you will have the virtual collapse of what is left in eastern Aleppo; you may have 200,000 people moving towards Turkey -- that would be a humanitarian catastrophe," he added.

AFP contributed to this report.