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Syria army begins offensive near Aleppo with Russian support

Beirut: Syrian government forces backed by Russian airpower and allied militias opened a new front against rebel fighters south of second city Aleppo today.

The fresh offensive came as Turkey said it had downed an drone of unknown origin that violated its air space close to the Syrian border, and a monitor said the toll in the conflict had risen to more than 250,000 people.

The Aleppo offensive is the fourth that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has launched since Moscow began an air campaign on September 30.

Aleppo city has been divided between regime control in the west and rebel control in the east since mid-2012.

The situation is largely reversed in the countryside surrounding the city, which was once the country’s economic hub, and the front lines have been static for some time.

A security source said the operation in southern Aleppo province was backed by Russian strikes and fighters from Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia.

The joint command for the Aleppo operation issued a statement saying the army had begun operations on the western and southern outskirts of Aleppo “to liberate you from the armed terrorist groups.”

It warned any resident or village cooperating with rebels would be a military target, but that those who cooperated with the army would be safe.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the regime had taken control of two villages during the offensive so far, and that Russian warplanes were pounding two others.