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News, July 2012
Fierce Fighting Rages in Aleppo as Syrian Rebels Call for Arms
Fierce fighting rages in Aleppo as rebels call for arms
As clashes between rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad raged for a second straight day in the city of Aleppo Sunday, Syria's main opposition group issued a plea for weapons and arms from foreign powers.
By FRANCE 24 (with wires) (text), July 29, 2012
Fighting raged on the second day Sunday of a fierce government offensive against rebels in Aleppo, as the UN said 200,000 civilians had fled Syria's most populous city in two days and many were trapped.
The opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) accused the government of preparing to carry out "massacres" in the northern city and pleaded for heavy weapons to enable rebels to meet the regime onslaught.
Global community condemned for its "silence"
Syria's Muslim Brotherhood denounced on Sunday President Bashar al-Assad, his allies Iran and Russia, and the international community's for its "silence" and failure to protect civilians. In a statement issued amid raging battles in Syria's commercial capital Aleppo, the influential Islamist movement said Assad was "legally and morally responsible for the death of every victim in Syria." The Brotherhood also said that both Iran and Russia -- the powerful allies of the embattled Assad regime -- were "drowning in the blood of the Syrian people."
"Neither the Russians nor the Iranians will relieve (Assad) of responsibility for his crimes," it added. The statement was released as troops pushed an offensive for a second day in a row on rebel-held districts of Aleppo, the key city in northern Syria. Russian Foreign Minister "Sergei Lavrov gave Bashar al-Assad the green light to carry out a massacre," it said. The Brotherhood also said the international community was "a partner" to violence in Syria, "by standing silent for too long... and failing to respect its obligation under international law to protect civilians."
The SNC also urged the UN to hold an emergency session to discuss ways to protect civilians caught up in the conflict.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, on a surprise visit to key ally Iran, said the rebels "will definitely be defeated" in Aleppo, even as a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander boasted the city would become a "graveyard" for the army's tanks.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Sunday's fighting was focused around the southwestern neighbourhood of Salaheddin, where rebels repulsed a ground assault on Saturday.
"There are clashes on the edges of...Salaheddin" which regime forces were pounding with helicopter gunships, the Observatory's Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
Abdel Rahman described the situation in Aleppo as "a full-scale street war," with fighting also in the neighbourhoods of Arkub, Bab al-Hadid, Fardoss, Jisr al-Hajj, Sukari, Zahraa, Zebdiyeh, at the Al-Hindrat Palestinian refugee camp, and Bustan al-Qasr district which was being pounded by helicopter gunships.
The Britain-based Observatory said that "the sound of heavy machinegun fire and explosions" could be heard in Salaheddin late on Sunday but gave no further details.
Rebels broke into a juvenile detention centre "in order to set the prisoners free," he said, adding displaced families were having difficulty finding refuge "because nowhere is safe any more."
After massing for two days, troops backed by tanks and helicopters on Saturday launched a ground assault on Salaheddin, where rebels concentrated their forces when they seized much of Aleppo on July 20.
Both sides claimed to have made advances, but an AFP correspondent reported rebels had largely repulsed the army when it launched its first onslaught.
Civilians in the city of some 2.5 million crowded into basements seeking refuge from the intense bombardment by artillery and helicopters, the correspondent said.
UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said in a statement that 200,000 people have fled from Aleppo in two days and an unknown number of them were still trapped in the city.
Amos said in New York that she was "extremely concerned by the impact of shelling and use of tanks and other heavy weapons" on civilians in Aleppo, Damascus and other locations.
She said that many people in Aleppo had sought shelter in schools and other public buildings. "They urgently need food, mattresses and blankets, hygiene supplies and drinking water," she said.
Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi, FSA commander for Aleppo, said the rebels had inflicted heavy losses on the army in Salaheddin but that there had been many civilian deaths.
"We ask the West for a no-fly zone" in order to prevent aerial raids by Assad's forces, he said.
The colonel said his men were positioned across Aleppo and would not withdraw as they had when they came under intense fire from regime troops in Damascus earlier this month.
'Very great slaughter'
"There is no strategic withdrawal of the Free Syrian Army. We await the attack," he said, while refusing to reveal how many rebels are fighting in Aleppo.
"We expect (the army) to commit a very great slaughter, and we urge the international community to intervene to prevent these crimes," the colonel said.
The Observatory reported that 67 people were killed across the country on Sunday.
In Tehran, Muallem vowed regime forces would crush the rebels in Aleppo.
"We believe that all the anti-Syrian forces have gathered in Aleppo to fight the government...and they will definitely be defeated," he told a joint news conference with Tehran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi.
As the rebels faced the superior firepower of Assad's regime, SNC chief Abdel Basset Sayda called on foreign governments to provide them with heavy weapons.
"We want weapons that would stop tanks and jet fighters," Sayda said after talks in Abu Dhabi.
The SNC also called on the Security Council to hold an emergency session on the situation in Aleppo, Damascus and Homs and urged it to "take action to provide civilians with the needed protection from brutal bombing campaigns."
Peace envoy Kofi Annan urged both sides to hold back, saying only a political solution could end a conflict that rights activists say has killed more than 20,000 people since the uprising erupted in March 2011.
"The escalation of the military build-up in Aleppo and the surrounding area is further evidence of the need for the international community to come together to persuade the parties that only a political transition, leading to a political settlement, will resolve this crisis," he said.
‘Mother of all battles’ as Syrian forces attack Aleppo
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces launched a counter-offensive on rebel-held areas in city of Aleppo Saturday, with troops backed by tanks moving in to southwestern districts. Syrian ally Russia warned of imminent "tragedy”.
Syrian government tanks backed by attack helicopters swept into Aleppo on Saturday as the regime launched an assault to regain control of the country's largest city a week after rebels seized several neighborhoods.
The high-stakes battle for Aleppo, a commercial hub and the country's largest city, has raised fears among activists and the international community that a new massacre could be looming.
Even Syria's longtime ally, Russia, added to the chorus of alarm Saturday, saying a "tragedy'' was imminent in Aleppo. But Russia's foreign minister said it was unrealistic to expect the Syrian army to stand by while rebels were trying to take over major cities.
Saturday's fighting was centered around the southwestern neighborhood of Salaheddine, one of the first areas seized by the rebels since they began a push to control the city after being routed from the capital, Damascus.
Activists said helicopters were strafing the area and rebels faced artillery barrages and regime tanks trying to push into the neighborhood.
An Aleppo-based activist, Mohammed Saeed, said the government counterattack had begun and rebels were fighting back in several other areas as well.
"Thanks be to God, they haven't succeeded in entering any of the (rebel-held) neighborhoods yet,'' he said.
President Bashar Assad's forces have been massing outside the city over the past few days, and Saeed said rebels from around the country also have been pouring in to help defend the areas under their control.
"About 1,000 fighters have come from the Free Syrian Army from outside the province of Aleppo to help,'' he said, referring to the main rebel group.
State television, in a rare comment on the situation in Aleppo, reported that government forces had inflicted heavy losses on groups of terrorists, the term the regime uses for the rebels.
The pro-government daily newspaper Al-Watan called it "the mother of all battles'' in a banner headline Saturday.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the government attack started before dawn with the sustained bombardment of several areas, followed by the movement of armored vehicles backed by attack helicopters.
Based on reports from its network on the ground, the Observatory reported attacks in the northeastern neighborhood of Sakhour as well as other areas, and said the rebels had disabled a number of regime armored vehicles.
The group estimated that 22 people, most civilians, have been killed in Saturday's fighting. The estimated toll for the past week in Aleppo is 162, a figure that does not include government soldiers killed.
The international community has expressed growing concern that there could be major bloodshed if Syrian troops retake Aleppo. But Western nations and their allies have found themselves powerless to prevent the situation from deteriorating despite a series of diplomatic efforts, including a cease-fire agreement that never took effect.
"The regime's destruction of its own city shows the level of oppression that has been reached in Syria,'' said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu from the central city of Konya. "We will do our best to stop this oppression.''
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, however, stood by the regime. "Now the city of Aleppo is occupied by the armed opposition; another tragedy is imminent there,'' he said. "How can it be hoped that in such a situation the government will simply give in, say 'Okay, I wasn't right, overthrow me, change the regime - it's simply unrealistic.''
Russia has been a key source of support for Syria, although Moscow officials in recent months have said they are simply taking a more even-handed approach while the West offers blind support to the rebels.
It has been a difficult two weeks for the Syrian government with rebel assaults first on the capital, Damascus, then on Aleppo, as well as several high-profile defections and a bomb that killed four top security officials.
The regime, however, launched a swift counteroffensive and quashed the assault on the capital with a combination of heavy weapons and house-to-house searches.Scores of people were killed. Opposition activists said they expected similar tactics in the coming days to keep Aleppo from falling into rebel hands.
The rebels are outgunned by the Syrian forces, making it difficult for them to hold any territory for long. But the rebels' run on Damascus and Aleppo suggests they could be gaining in power and organization.
With a population of about 3 million, Aleppo is Syria's commercial hub, a key pillar of support for Assad's regime.
If the rebels in Aleppo really try to make a stand against the regime, however, they risk being annihilated by superior firepower and may yet decide to withdraw to preserve their forces as what happened in Damascus last week.
Saudi Arabia and other nations have spoken positively of arming the rebels, though no country is known to be doing so. Saudi King Abdullah announced a national campaign to collect money for "our brothers in Syria'' on July 22, and on Saturday the country's press agency said Saudi donations had reached more than $72 million.
Italy also welcomed Friday's release of two Italian electrical engineers, who had been captured eight days ago by militants. Italian company Ansaldo Energia, which supplies and installs power generation plants, confirmed that the two men - Domenico Tedeschi and Oriano Cantani - worked for a subcontractor in Syria.
Tedeschi told reporters in Damascus that they had been kidnapped by five or six masked men, who intercepted their car as they drove to the airport. He said the men were robbed, then kept at a small villa. "The Syrian army found us at midday on Friday and they organized everything to release us safe,'' he said.
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