10/20/2015, 00.00
SYRIA
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Vicar of Aleppo: Thanks to Russian support, Syrian army making advances. Security getting better in the city

At least 70 thousand people fleeing the southern suburbs of the city; Russian and Iranian military presence growing. Msgr. Abou Khazen: Moscow more "effective" in the United States in the fight against jihadists. Washington and Saudi "legitimize" extremists like the Nusra Front. The prelate calls for a "political process" for the country's future. Christians and Muslims would like to thank the pope for his solidarity.

Aleppo (AsiaNews) - With the support of allied forces the Syrian army "is taking the initiative" and "is freeing several areas from armed rebel groups" in the countryside around Aleppo. People "afraid of violence, are fleeing the area waiting and hope to return when the fighting” is over.

In cities, however, "the situation is calmer than in the past, there are fewer bombings because the forces are engaged on other fronts and there is a feeling of greater security”, says the Latin rite Apostolic Vicar of Aleppo, Msgr. Georges Abou Khazen, commenting to AsiaNews on the offensive going on these days in the outlying areas of the second largest city of Syria, in the north of the country.

"There is no precise information - adds the prelate - but it is clear that the government army is advancing on the ground, and the people are leaving the areas so as not to be caught up in the battle".

Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes and lands following the offensive waged by the Syrian government forces, supported by Russian air raids and Iranian military experts.

In addition to the southern outskirts of Aleppo, the fighting is concentrated in rural areas north of the city of Homs and Hama, and in the coastal province of Latakia.

Zaidoun al-Zoabi, head of the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organisations, confirmed to the BBC that many villages around the city of Aleppo are empty; at least 70 thousand people have left their homes in a hurry, heading south into the open country.

Meanwhile, the growing presence of Iran and Russia, whose intervention helped to halt the advance of the Islamic state militia and the extremist groups - including the Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaeda in Syria – is visible on the ground.

Moreover, the Iranian Brigadier General Qasem Soleimani, leader of the al-Quds Force, which coordinates the operations of Shiite militias from three different countries, including Iraq and Lebanon (Hezbollah) will be commanding the offensive on Aleppo.

"The Russian intervention has led to greater efficiency in the fight against militants of the Islamic State - underlines Msgr. Georges Abou Khazen - because their fighter jets hit their targets, they do not pretend to hit them".

The reference is military operation launched last year by the United States and allied countries which, in the prelate’s opinion, "was purposely not effective."

Added to this is the "legitimacy" that Washington and Saudi Arabia are giving to movements like the Nusra Front, which actually consist of "fighters, 80% of which come from outside, are not Syrians, and have no interest in creating a really modern and democratic nation".

"That's why we should not look at them as moderate internal opposition groups - the prelate explains - and yesterday’s news that  Saudis have decided to supply new weapons to Nusra Front militiamen to withstand the advance of 'Syrian army is certainly far from positive. We need to start taking the fight against extremist groups seriously".

"Now - says the prelate – what we really need is a resumption of a political process between the warring parties in Syria. Besides the bombings target IS and other jihadist groups, we also need a dialogue between the government and the opposition, because all the parties involved should participate in the political process. It seems that Moscow is moving in this direction, and we [Christian leaders and Syrian civilians - ed] have some hope. "

The Apostolic Vicar of Aleppo reports that "the common people who are under the government today are more optimistic and welcomes the latest developments, there is a climate of renewed, albeit cautious hope for the future, there is more calm."

This, he adds, "facilitates our work to encourage people" and the fact that "we have electricity again for at least an hour a day, we have water distributed more days a week, even though other problems remain, including widespread unemployment ".

Finally, the prelate wants to emphasize "the importance of the support of Pope Francis" who in recent days has renewed calls for peace in the Middle East.

"The population - concludes Msgr. Georges - feel the closeness of the Pope, not only Christians but also Muslims themselves. In fact, when some of us [priests or bishops of Aleppo] go to Rome, Christians and Muslims always ask us to thank Pope Francis for what he does, which is a push forward towards a future of peace and coexistence. " (DS)

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