Fierce fighting raged for a second straight day in Syria’s commercial capital Aleppo yesterday as troops pressed an offensive against rebel-held areas of the city, sparking fears for trapped civilians.
As rebel fighters held out against the superior firepower of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the head of the exiled opposition called on foreign governments to provide them with heavy weapons.
International peace envoy and former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan urged both sides to hold back, saying that only a political solution could bring an end of a conflict that human rights monitors say has killed more than 20,000 people since the uprising erupted in March last year.
An activist who gave his name as Abu Alaa said there was renewed shelling of the Salaheddin district in southwest Aleppo, where rebels repulsed a ground assault on Saturday.
He said there were also clashes between troops and rebels in the Bab al-Nasr, Bab al-Hadid and Old City neighborhoods of the city center.
The central districts’ “narrow streets and alleys, with covered markets and densely populated buildings, are impossible to penetrate with tanks or shelling from afar,” he said.
After massing for two days, troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships 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 a correspondent reported that rebels had largely repulsed the army’s offensive.
Civilians in the city of about 2.5 million people crowded into basements seeking refuge from the intense bombardment by artillery and helicopter gunships, the correspondent said.
Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi of the rebel Free Syrian Army said his forces had repulsed the ground assault in Salaheddin.
“We managed to force the army to the neighborhood of Hamdaniyeh,” he said, referring to a district which is home to large numbers of government employees, many of them members of al-Assad’s Alawite minority.
However, state media reported that the rebels had suffered casualties in the fighting.
“Our heroic forces inflicted losses on the armed terrorist groups in Salaheddin,” the official SANA news agency said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported heavy fighting yesterday in the Bab al-Hadid, Zahraa, Arkub and Al-Hindrat Camp districts.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said the fact that the initial ground assault on Salaheddin had been repulsed “does not necessarily mean a withdrawal, as their strategy is to bombard ... to cause an exodus, then launch an assault even more fierce.”
Nationwide, violence killed 168 people on Saturday — 94 civilians, 33 rebels and 41 soldiers, the UK-based watchdog said.
Annan, the joint envoy on the Syrian conflict of the UN and the Arab League, issued a renewed call for a political settlement.
“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.
The former UN head brokered a peace plan that was supposed to begin with a ceasefire from April 12, but it never took hold.
The head of the opposition Syrian National Council, Abdel Basset Sayda, called on Arab governments to provide the rebels with heavy weapons.