Government forces pound Aleppo for 2nd day

FILE – In this Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016 photo released by the Syrian Presidency, Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks to The Associated Press at the presidential palace in Damascus, Syria. The House on Nov. 15, overwhelmingly approved bipartisan bills to crack down on supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and renew a decades-old Iran sanctions law. Swift passage underscored broad support on Capitol Hill for punishing financial backers of the Syrian government and maintaining economic pressure on Tehran.(Syrian Presidency via AP)

BEIRUT (AP) — Pro-government forces pushed on with their bombardment of the Syrian city of Aleppo Wednesday on the second day of a massive offensive against the city’s rebel-held eastern quarters.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group says 20 civilians have been killed by the fierce bombardment that resumed Tuesday after a three-week respite. Local activists counted at least 50 artillery and air strikes since the morning.

The U.N. estimates that pro-government forces have trapped some 275,000 people in Aleppo’s eastern quarters in a strict blockade enforced since August, as ground and air forces meanwhile pound the area’s hospitals. The U.N. warned last week that food rations inside Aleppo’s rebel-held districts could be depleted this week.

 Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview published Tuesday with Portugal’s state-run RTP television channel that his forces were fighting to liberate civilians from “terrorists,” while most of the rebels in Aleppo, numbering around 8,000 according to the U.N., are Syrians who have been fighting to overthrow Assad.

Assad also identified U.S. President-elect Donald Trump as a possible “natural ally,” if he turned out to be “genuine” about his commitment to fighting terror in Syria.

Trump has indicated he would prioritize defeating the Islamic State group in Syria over regime change, saying the rebels could be “worse” than the sitting president.

Elsewhere in Syria’s north, Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces are close to taking the town of al-Bab, about 35 kilometers (22 miles) northeast of Aleppo, from the Islamic State group, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters on Wednesday.

He said the opposition fighters were about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from al-Bab.

“The siege is going according to plan,” Erdogan said. “There is a resistance there at the moment but I don’t think it will last long.”

Ankara sent ground forces into northern Syria in August, vowing to clear the border area of both IS and Syrian Kurdish militias.

The president also predicted U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters — which Turkey views as terrorists because of their affiliation to Kurdish rebels in Turkey — would soon leave the town of Manbij, in keeping with a U.S. promise to Turkey.

More than 300,000 people have been killed in the 5-1/2 year-long Syrian civil war.