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Thousands Flee Eastern Aleppo As Syrian Regime Forces Advance

People flee rebel-held eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo into the Sheikh Maqsud area, controlled by Kurdish fighters, in Syria on Sunday. The photo was provided by the Rumaf, a Syrian Kurdish activist group, and authenticated by The Associated Press.

In Syria, thousands of civilians are fleeing eastern Aleppo as pro-government forces advance on rebel-held territory.

The city has been divided between the regime-held west and rebel-controlled east since 2012. Now, as The Two-Way reported Sunday, government forces are pushing to split the rebel-held territory in half.

The pro-Assad troops have made substantial gains; according to Syrian state media and an opposition-leaning monitor, the forces have taken several key residential areas, NPR's Alice Fordham reports from Beirut.

"Thousands of civilians fled the fighting — some into areas held by Kurdish forces and others into government controlled areas," Alice says.

"The U.N. says about 200,000 people are in eastern Aleppo," she reports. "The regime says they were forced to stay there by rebels, while some residents have told NPR they are afraid of the regime and don't want to leave their homes."

Photographs from Aleppo show some residents, including families with children, evacuating the city on green buses, and others fleeing on foot.

A resident tells The Associated Press that some of those who are staying in east Aleppo are taking refuge in mosques or are moving into safer homes abandoned by those leaving the city.

As we reported Sunday, one of the regions recaptured by government forces — Masaken Hanano — is a particularly important strategic and symbolic victory.

"Masaken Hanano was the first district the rebels captured when they launched their Aleppo offensive in 2012," NPR's Alison Meuse reported. "At the time, they vowed to take the whole city. But after four years of brutal stalemate, Assad's forces have managed to encircle the rebel-held side of the city."

The AP has more on the regime's recent gains:

"Aleppo, Syria's largest city and former commercial center, has been contested since the summer of 2012 and a rebel defeat in the city would be a turning point in the five-year conflict. If Syrian forces capture all of east Aleppo, President Bashar Assad's government will be in control of the country's four largest cities as well as the coastal region.

"The government's push, backed by thousands of Shiite militia fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, and under the occasional cover of the Russian air force, has laid waste to Aleppo's eastern neighborhoods. ...

" 'It is stinging cold, food is scarce and people are shaken in the streets,' Mohammad Zein Khandaqani, a member of the Medical Council in Aleppo, told The Associated Press in a voice text message from east Aleppo."

According to both Russia's Defense Ministry and the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Syrian government troops have taken some 10 neighborhoods in east Aleppo in the past few days, the AP reports.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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