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Fighting intensifies in Aleppo

(Reuters) / 5 August 2012

President Bashar Al Assadís forces used artillery, planes and a helicopter gunship to pound rebel positions in Syriaís biggest city on Saturday, witnesses said, in a battle that could determine the outcome of the 17-month uprising.

After UN Security Council paralysis on Syria forced peace envoy Kofi Annan to resign this week, and with his ceasefire plan a distant memory, rebels were battered by the onslaught they had expected in Aleppo and in the capital Damascus.

“There is one helicopter and we’re hearing two explosions every minute,” said a Reuters witness in Aleppo, Syria’s commercial hub.

Syrian forces struck at Aleppo’s Salaheddine district, a gateway into the city of 2.5 million people that has become the frontline of an increasingly sectarian conflict that has killed some 18,000 people and could spill into neighbouring countries.

A local rebel commander said his fighters were preparing for a “strong offensive” by government forces on the city.

In Damascus, jets bombarded the capital as troops continued an offensive they began on Friday to storm the last rebel bastion there, a resident said.

Both cities - vital prizes in the battle for Syria - had been relatively free from violence during the 17-month uprising but fighting flared in Damascus after a July 18 bombing which killed four of Assad’s inner circle and also erupted in Aleppo.

“We saw two fighter bombers that are each capable of carrying one bomb fly over the area of Salaheddine and then we heard two explosions,” said a witness.

Early on Saturday, a rebel commander in Aleppo said he expected a Syrian army attack on rebels “within days”, echoing the head of the UN peacekeeping department, who said there had been a “considerable build-up of military means”.

“We know they are planning to attack the city using tanks and aircraft, shooting at us for three to four days and they plan to take the city,” Colonel Abdel-Jabbar al-Oqaidi said.

Bullets zipped past residential buildings, as rebels took cover behind concrete blocks and sandbag walls and fired in the direction of Assad’s forces. Two fighter jets opened fire with cannon and smoke billowed from the district.

One fighter fell to the ground after a bullet hit his chest. Fellow rebels dragged him into a car, leaving a trail of blood on the ground, to take him to a field hospital.

TV offensive repelled

Rebels tried to extend their area of control in Aleppo from Salaheddine to the area around the television and radio station, but were pushed back by Assad’s troops, an activist said.

“The Syrian army sent snipers and surrounded the TV station and as soon as morning came, the army started shooting. One of our fighters was martyred and four were wounded,” said a 19-year-old fighter, who gave his name as Mu’awiya Al Halabi.

Syrian television said a large number of “terrorists” were killed and wounded after they tried to storm the broadcaster.

After Annan’s resignation, the UN General Assembly voted on Friday to condemn the Syrian government and criticise the UN Security Council’s failure to agree tougher action, in a resolution that Western diplomats said highlighted the isolation of Assad supporters Russia and China.

In Damascus, a resident in the Adawi neighbourhood just north of the central Old City reported that jets had pounded an area of the capital on Saturday. “The bombardment has been continuous since 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) in Tadamun district. It hasn’t stopped for a moment,” said the resident.

Syrian television said on Saturday an armed terrorist group had committed a massacre in the Damascus suburb of Yalda. The television station said 20 people had been killed. It was not immediately possible to verify the incident as Syria restricts foreign media access.



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