The Syrian military stepped up its campaign to drive rebel fighters out of Aleppo yesterday, firing artillery and mortars while a fighter jet flew over a district the army said it had retaken the day before.
However, opposition activists denied government forces had entered Salaheddine, in the southwest of Syria’s biggest city.
Hospitals and makeshift clinics in rebel-held eastern neighborhoods were filling up with casualties from a week of fighting in Aleppo, a commercial hub that had previously stayed out of a 16-month-old revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“Some days we get around 30, 40 people, not including the bodies,” said a young medic in one clinic. “A few days ago we got 30 injured and maybe 20 corpses, but half of those bodies were ripped to pieces. We can’t figure out who they are.”
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 18 people were killed in the Aleppo area on Sunday out of more than 150 people, two-thirds of them civilians, slain across Syria.
Outgunned rebel fighters, patrolling in flatbed trucks flying green-white-and-black “independence” flags, said they were holding out in Salaheddine despite a battering by the army’s heavy weapons and helicopter gunships.
“We always knew the regime’s grave would be Aleppo,” said Mohammed, a young fighter, fingering the bullets in his tattered brown ammunition vest. “Damascus is the capital, but here we have a fourth of the country’s population and the entire force of its economy. Bashar’s forces will be buried here.”
The army’s assault on Salaheddine echoed its tactics in Damascus earlier this month when it used its overwhelming firepower to mop up rebel fighters district by district. Al-Assad’s forces are determined not to let go of Aleppo, where defeat would be a serious strategic and psychological blow.
Military experts believe the rebels are too lightly armed and poorly commanded to overcome the army, whose artillery pounds the city at will and whose gunships control the skies.
Journalists in Aleppo have been unable to approach Salaheddine to verify who controls it.
“Yesterday they were shelling the area at a rate of two shells a minute. We couldn’t move at all,” said an opposition activist, calling himself a spokesman for the “Aleppo Revolution” group.