Rebels, Syrian troops trade heavy fire as battle for Aleppo rages

Helicopters and heavy shelling pound rebels as fighting for financial capital enters fifth day

A helicopter gunship flies a bombing run in al-Qalmoun, Syria, on Tuesday, July 24, 2012. (photo credit: Shaam News Network, SNN/AP)
A helicopter gunship flies a bombing run in al-Qalmoun, Syria, on Tuesday, July 24, 2012. (photo credit: Shaam News Network, SNN/AP)

Fighter jets unleashed sonic booms and helicopter gunships strafed rebels as they pressed their fight early Wednesday into new neighborhoods in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. Farther south, ground troops combed Damascus after the nearly complete rout of the largest rebel assault yet on the capital.

Activist video from Wednesday showed a burning police station in the southern Aleppo neighborhood of al-Kelassa, while gunfire could be heard ringing out in the background. The Associated Press cannot independently confirm events portrayed in such videos posted online.

Reuters reported a massacre of worshipers entering a mosque in Damascus, quoting an eyewitness as saying that troops at a nearby roadblock opened fire with automatic rifles, killing some 30 people. “The streets are strewn with bodies,” the witness said.

President Bashar Assad’s forces, after a series of setbacks, are solidifying their grip on Aleppo and Damascus, knowing that their fall would almost certainly spell the regime’s end.

Media reported an armored column of Syrian troops making its way from the Turkish border to Aleppo. This followed heavy shelling in the city by regime forces with about 30 rockets being fired in half an hour.

Helicopters belonging to Assad’s army also went after rebels as they attempted to push into the country’s financial center.

The regime appears to be regaining momentum after a series of setbacks that put it on the defensive. But while its forces easily outgun the rebels in direct confrontations, the rebellion has spread them thin — pointing to a drawn-out civil war.

Syria’s two biggest cities, home to more than one-third of the country’s 22 million people and centers of its political and economic life, have remained largely insulated from the unrest that has ravaged much of the rest of the country during the 16-month conflict.

But this month, rebels from surrounding areas have pushed into both, bringing street battles to previously calm urban neighborhoods.

The fighting in each city has followed a similar script.

After building up their forces in the countryside and clashing with government troops there, rebels pressed into Damascus early last week, sparking clashes around the city with government troops.

The opposition landed a harsh blow July 18, when a bomb tore through a high-level security meeting, killing four top Assad security advisers including his minister of defense and his older sister’s husband. All had been key architects of the government’s efforts to quash the uprising.

But the battle turned when the regime deployed the overwhelming force it has used to crush rebels elsewhere, shelling residential areas and targeting rebels with machine guns and missiles fired from attack helicopters.

On Tuesday, the government appeared to have largely retaken the capital. Activists reported shelling and sporadic clashes between troops and rebels in and around the city, but acknowledged that most fighters had withdrawn.

“They had to withdraw because they lacked ammunition and organization, because the regime was stronger and because they didn’t want to hurt civilians,” Damascus activist Mohammed Saeed said via Skype.

The fighting took a huge toll, making June one of the deadliest months in a conflict that activists say has killed more than 19,000 people.

About one-third of the 150 people killed across Syria on Monday were in or near Damascus, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Amateur video posted online Tuesday showed the aftermath: buildings reduced to rubble by government shells, helicopters hovering overhead and columns of smoke rising from areas still on fire.

Other videos showed tanks in the streets and crowds of foot soldiers combing areas once held by rebels.

Syria’s state news service said troops chased “armed terrorists” from some districts after killing and wounding many of them and were still searching other areas. Syria blames terrorists backed by foreign powers for the uprising.

Videos and claims could not be independently verified. The Syrian government prevents most media from operating in the country.

While the regime asserted control in the capital, rebels in the north launched an assault on Aleppo over the weekend. They pushed into neighborhoods in the southern and northeastern edges of the city and destroyed at least three government tanks.

The fighting expanded on Tuesday, with clashes spreading into neighborhoods on two sides of the historic old city and into a number of other areas, activists said.

The government fought back much as it did in Damascus, firing artillery shells on rebel areas and pursuing fighters with attack helicopters. Residents also reported fighter jets swooping over the city, breaking the sound barrier to cause sonic booms in a show of force.

“It’s the worst day of fighting in Aleppo so far, but I can’t tell what’s happening on the ground or who’s in control,” said a local writer who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “This is bad because in the end it’s the civilians who will pay the price of this street fighting.”

Prisoners in Aleppo’s jail also rioted overnight, and activists said government forces killed at least eight of them. Guards quelled another prison riot in the nearby city of Homs with tear gas and live ammunition.

At least 26 of the more than 110 people killed nationwide on Tuesday died in Aleppo province, the Syrian Observatory said.

Also Tuesday, a top military commander and close friend of Syrian President Bashar Assad confirmed his defection from the regime.

Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, son of a former defense minister, said in a video broadcast on Al-Arabiya TV that Syrians must work together to build a new country.

“I speak to you not as an official, but as a son of Syria, as a son of the Syrian Arab army that has rejected the criminal program if this corrupt regime,” Tlass said, dressed in a light blue shirt with an open collar, his gray hair tussled.

“Our duty today as Syrians is to unify for one goal, and that is to make our country free and democratic,” he said.

It was his first public appearance since he left Syria earlier this month. French officials later confirmed that he was in France.

His long silence raised questions about whether he had joined the anti-Assad uprising or merely fled the civil war.

Tlass is the highest-level defector from the Syrian regime since the conflict’s start.

He was a member of the elite Republican Guard and son of former defense minister Mustafa Tlass, who served under Assad’s father.

Also joining the defectors, according to Al-Jazeera, was Syrian charges d’affaires in Cyprus, Lamia al-Hariri. Al-Jazeera quoted Bassem Imadi, Syria’s former ambassador to Sweden who defected in December, as saying that al-Hariri was the niece of Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa.

Syria’s uprising started when political protests in March 2011 met a harsh government crackdown. As dissent spread and the death toll rose, many in the opposition took up arms and the conflict transformed into a civil war.

It remains unclear if the rebels in Aleppo will hold out longer than their colleagues did in Damascus. But even activists who acknowledged the loss of the capital said a larger battle had been won.

For the first time, the image of Damascus as standing outside of the uprising has been shattered, said Rami Jarrah, head of the Cairo-based Activists News Association.

“If this happened once, it can happen again,” he said. “But next time,” he said of the rebels, “they’ll be more prepared.”


Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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