Last Updated: Wed Aug 01, 2012 10:18 am (KSA) 07:18 am (GMT)

Blasts and gunfire heard in Damascus as Syrian army extends fight for Aleppo

Damascus residents heard explosions and intermittent gunfire late on Wednesday in several districts, notably in the southwestern neighborhood of Kfar Sousa. (Reuters)
Damascus residents heard explosions and intermittent gunfire late on Wednesday in several districts, notably in the southwestern neighborhood of Kfar Sousa. (Reuters)

Sustained gunfire and explosions were heard early Wednesday in areas of the Syrian capital hostile to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, activists reported.

A blast and heavy gunfire came from the Baghdad Street, a main arterial route through the city, while the sound of battle was also heard in the Christian area of Bab Tuma, said the Local Coordination Committees that organize protests.

Fighting between soldiers and rebels broke out on Wednesday for the first time near two Christian districts of Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“Fighting erupted at dawn on Wednesday on the outskirts of the Bab Tuma and Bab Sharqi neighborhoods. First indications are that one soldier has been killed,” the Britain-based group said in a statement.

The LCC also said that the capital’s southern suburb of Tadamun was hit by mortar fire at dawn, according to AFP.

Damascus residents heard explosions and intermittent gunfire late on Wednesday in several districts, notably in the southwestern neighborhood of Kfar Sousa.

Fighting in that district broke out again on Monday after a lull when rebels attacked a regime forces checkpoint using rocket-propelled grenades.

Since July 20, the battle between the rebels and government forces has focused on the country’s commercial capital Aleppo in the north.

On Tuesday 154 people -- among them 35 civilians, 63 soldiers and 27 rebels -- were killed in violence nationwide, around half in Aleppo.

Both troops and rebels poured into Aleppo on Tuesday as both sides battened down for the long haul after 40 police were killed on day four of a pivotal battle in the nearly 17-month conflict.

According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 20,000 people have been killed since the uprising broke out in mid-March last year.

During the day on Tuesday large clouds of black smoke rose into the sky after attack helicopters turned their machineguns on eastern districts for the first time in the latest fighting and a MiG warplane later strafed the same area.

After nightfall, Reuters journalists in Aleppo heard loud explosions somewhere near the city. At least 10 volleys of shells lit up the night sky and drowned out the sound of the Islamic call to prayer. Carloads of rebel fighters shouting “God is great” sped off towards the fighting.

The battle for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, has become a crucial test for both sides in the 16-month-old rebellion. Neither Assad’s forces nor the rag-tag rebels can afford to lose if they hope to prevail in the wider struggle for Syria.

Syria’s civil war has entered a far more violent phase since July 18 when a bomb killed four top members of President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle. Serious fighting reached Aleppo over the past week and rebels also launched an assault on the capital Damascus in July but were repulsed.

Heavy gunfire echoed around the Salaheddine district in the southwest of the city, scene of some of the worst clashes, with shells raining in for most of the day.

Reuters journalists have established that neither the Syrian army nor rebel fighters are in full control of the quarter, which the government said it had taken on Sunday.

Syrian state television said on Tuesday troops were still pursuing remaining “terrorists” there -- its usual way of describing rebel fighters.

A rebel commander in Aleppo said his fighters’ aim was to push towards the city center, district by district, a goal he believed they could achieve “within days, not weeks.”

The rebels say they now control an arc that covers eastern and southwestern districts.

“The regime has tried for three days to regain Salaheddine, but its attempts have failed and it has suffered heavy losses in human life, weapons and tanks, and it has been forced to withdraw,” said Colonel Abdul Jabbar al-Oqaidi, head of the Joint Military Council, one of several rebel groups in Aleppo.

Oqaidi told Reuters that more than 3,000 rebel fighters were in Aleppo but would not give a precise number.

The fighting has proved costly for the 2.5 million residents of Aleppo, a commercial hub that was slow to join the anti-Assad revolt that has rocked the capital, Damascus, and other cities.

Rebels say they will turn Aleppo into the “grave” of the Assad government. Thousands of residents have fled and those who remain face shortages of food and fuel and the ever-present risk of injury or death.

The most powerful military in the region, NATO member Turkey, has been moving armored columns towards the border, although it has given no indication they will cross over.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, once a friend of Assad, has become one of his most vocal opponents. Erdogan spoke by phone to U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday.

Western and Arab states have for months been urging the Syrian opposition to unite. On Tuesday, they appeared further fractured when a group of exiled Syrian activists announced a new opposition alliance to form a transitional government -- a challenge to the Syrian National Council, a long established group they said had failed.

Assad, a member of the Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, is now opposed by the leaders of other Arab states, nearly all of which are led by Sunni Muslims, as well as by Turkey and the West.

Within the region he retains the support of Shiite-led Iran, and in the U.N. Security Council he has been protected by China and Russia.

The U.N. General Assembly said on Tuesday it would hold a meeting on the crisis in Syria this week and diplomats say it will likely vote on a Saudi-drafted resolution that condemns the Security Council for failing to take action against Damascus.

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