The Syrian army launched a massive assault on rebels in Aleppo yesterday amid growing world concern about the risks of reprisals against the civilian population of the country’s second city.
Troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships, which had been massing for the past two days, moved on southwestern districts of the commercial hub, where rebel fighters concentrated their forces when they seized much of the northern city on July 20.
Artillery pounded Salaheddin and other rebel neighborhoods from 8am as ground troops made their advance, a correspondent reported.
Trapped civilians crowded into basements, seeking refuge from the intense bombardment.
“The fiercest clashes of the uprising are taking place in several neighborhoods of the city,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights head Rami Abdel Rahman said.
At least 10 soldiers and three rebels were killed in fierce fighting after the launch of the assault, the Observatory said.
“The regime’s forces tried to storm the headquarters of Salaheddin, but thank God, the heroes of the [rebel] Free Syrian Army [FSA] repulsed the attack,” FSA Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi said.
“We have now destroyed eight armored vehicles,” he said. “There are 100 tanks massed on the outskirts of the district.”
“The battle will be hard because there is no balance of forces, but we are determined and we have faith in God,” he added.
The opposition fighters had been holding their fire in readiness for the threatened assault by the army, the correspondent said.
However, their small arms and rocket-propelled grenades were little match for the heavy armor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
“There are thousands of people in the streets fleeing the bombardment. They’re being terrorized by helicopter gunships flying at low altitude,” said an activist who gave his name only as Amer.
Pro-government media had warned that the “mother of all battles” loomed in Aleppo as the government moved to reassert its authority after recapturing rebel districts of the capital.
“Aleppo will be the last battle waged by the Syrian army to crush the terrorists and, after that, Syria will emerge from the crisis,” the Al-Watan newspaper said.
Both sides acknowledged that casualties were likely to be high as the more than 16-month uprising comes to a head.
“Rebels are stationed in narrow streets, in which fighting will be difficult,” a regime security official said
Russia warned that a “tragedy” was looming in Aleppo, but said it was unrealistic to expect that the government would stand by when armed rebels were occupying major cities.
“We are persuading the government that they need to make some first gestures,” said Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov, whose government has long had close relations with Damascus.
Turkey, which has given refuge to defecting army officers who have formed the kernel of the rebel Free Syrian Army, as well as tens of thousands of fleeing civilians, warned it could “not remain an observer” as the violence raged across its southern border.
“We must do what we can together in the United Nations Security Council, and also in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Arab League, to make sure that we can make some important progress in trying to avert this appalling situation,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.