Russia warns of Aleppo "tragedy" as troops enter
Published Saturday, July 28, 2012
Russia warned on Saturday that a "tragedy" was looming in Syria's second city of Aleppo as government forces launched a fightback against rebels who had taken hold of parts of the city.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he was pushing the government to make “gestures” to avoid further bloodshed, but added that the armed opposition could not expect the government to allow them to control the country's most populous city.
"We are persuading the government that they need to make some first gestures," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference.
"But when the armed opposition are occupying cities like Aleppo, where yet another tragedy is brewing, as I understand ... it is not realistic to expect that they (the government) will accept this," Lavrov said.
Western governments have raised concerns about reprisals against the civilian population of the city as government forces clash with rebels.
"How can you hope that in such a situation, the government will simply reconcile itself and say, 'All right, I was wrong. Come on and topple me, change the regime?'" Lavrov asked rhetorically.
"It's just not realistic — not because we are holding onto this regime — but it simply doesn't work," he told the news conference.
On the ground, troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships, which had been massing for the past two days, moved on southwestern districts of the city where rebel fighters have concentrated their forces.
Artillery pounded Salaheddin and other rebel neighborhoods from 8am as ground troops made their advance, an AFP correspondent reported.
Trapped civilians crowded into basements, seeking refuge from the intense bombardment.
"You can say that the fightback has begun," the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, told AFP.
"The fiercest clashes of the uprising are taking place in several neighborhoods of the city," he said.
Pro-government media had warned that the "mother of all battles" loomed in Aleppo as the government moved to reassert its authority after recapturing rebels' districts of the capital earlier in the week.
"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 told AFP.
The opposition fighters had been holding their fire in readiness for the threatened counter-offensive, but their small arms and rocket-propelled grenades are little match for the heavy armor of the Syrian army.