Syrian rebels trying to fight off an army offensive in Aleppo yesterday said they were running low on ammunition as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces encircled their stronghold at the southern entrance to the country’s biggest city.
Al0Assad, dealt another political blow on Monday with the defection of his prime minister, has reinforced his troops in preparation for an assault to recapture rebel-held districts of Aleppo after repelling fighters from most of Damascus.
“The Syrian army is trying to encircle us from two sides of Salaheddine,” said Sheikh Tawfiq, one of the rebel commanders, referring to the southwestern neighborhood that has seen heavy fighting over the last week.
Mortar fire and tank shells exploded across the district early yesterday, forcing rebel fighters to take cover in crumbling buildings and rubble-strewn alleyways.
Tanks have entered parts of Salaheddine and army snipers, using the cover of heavy bombardment, deployed on rooftops, hindering rebel movements.
Another rebel commander, Abu Ali, said snipers at the main Saleheddine roundabout were preventing the rebels from bringing in reinforcements and supplies. He said five of his fighters were killed on Monday and 20 wounded.
However, rebels said they were still holding the main streets of Salaheddine, which have been the frontline of their clashes with al-Assad’s forces.
A fighter jet pounded targets in the eastern districts of Aleppo and artillery shelling could be heard in the early morning, an activist in Aleppo said.
“Two families, about 14 people in total, were believed killed when a shell hit their home and it collapsed this morning,” the activist said.
The house was one street away from a school being used by rebels, he said.
Meanwhile, state news agency SANA said al-Assad met the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, yesterday. It gave no details.
Iran has expressed worry about the fate of more than 40 Iranians it says are religious pilgrims kidnapped by rebels off a bus in Damascus while visiting Shiite shrines.
The rebels say they suspect the captives were troops sent to help al-Assad. A rebel spokesman in the Damascus area said on Monday three of the Iranians had been killed by government shelling, and the rest would be executed if the shelling did not stop.
In other developments, opposition figures, buoyant despite setbacks in recent weeks of fighting in the two main cities Damascus and Aleppo, spoke of an extensive and long-planned operation to spirit Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab and his large extended family across the border to Jordan.
On Monday, Hijab denounced the “terrorist regime” in Damascus after fleeing the country.
The defection of Hijab, who like most of the opposition hails from the Sunni Muslim majority, was a further sign of the isolation of al-Assad’s government around an inner core of powerful members of his minority Alawite sect.
A spokesman for US President Barack Obama hailed Hijab’s defection as a sign that the 40-year rule of al-Assad’s family was “crumbling from within” and said he should step down.
A Syrian brigadier-general was among more than 1,300 refugees who fled to Turkey to escape escalating violence in Syria overnight, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said yesterday.
Another 11 military officers were also among the arrivals, bringing the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey to 47,500 people, the ministry said on Twitter.