Syrian army launches Aleppo ground offensive

A Free Syrian Army fighter takes cover during clashes with Syrian Army in the Salaheddine neighborhood of central Aleppo 7 August 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Goran Tomasevic)

Published Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Updated 2:05pm: Syrian state TV said on Wednesday that government forces had pushed into the southern Salaheddine district of Aleppo, killing the majority of the rebels there, and had entered other parts of the city in a fresh offensive.

It said that dozens of "terrorists" were killed in the central district of Bab al-Hadeed, close to the ancient citadel, and Bab al-Nayrab in the south east.

Rebels have used Salaheddine, the southern gateway to Syria's biggest city, as a base for three weeks but a Reuters witness said some positions were abandoned on Wednesday.

"We have retreated, get out of here," a lone rebel fighter yelled at Reuters journalists as they arrived on Wednesday in the Salaheddine district. A checkpoint that had been manned by rebel fighters for the last week had disappeared.

Syrian tanks pushed through the district, sparking some of the most intense fighting seen since the uprising began in March 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

A Syrian security official told AFP that the army had launched a ground assault to retake the district, adding it would not take long to assert control of the area.

"The army is advancing from west to east to cut Salaheddin in half horizontally," the official said on condition of anonymity, referring to the key rebel stronghold in the city.

"It will not take a long time to control the district, even if there are some pockets of resistance remaining," the source added.

But a rebel commander said that Salaheddine had not yet completely fallen, saying fighting was still taking place in the key district.

"The regime forces advanced into Al-Malaab Street with tanks and armored vehicles and fierce fighting is now taking place in the area," Wassel Ayub, a commander in the rebel Free Syrian Army, told AFP.

When asked how far the government forces had reached, the defected Syrian army captain said that "the army is present in less than 15 percent of Salaheddine."

The army, which has been massing its troops and armor in and around Aleppo since late last month, was moving from west to east, coming from Hamdaniyeh, a district adjacent to Salaheddine, Ayub added.

The Syrian army has been battling since July 20 to repel a rebel offensive on Syria's largest city, and have called up to 20,000 troops for a decisive showdown that could ultimately determine the course of the revolt.

The Syrian regime announced on July 30 that it had retaken Salaheddine, a key district that enables government reinforcements into the city.

But fighting had continued in the district, with media reports that Salaheddine was still contested until Wednesday when some rebels announced their withdrawal.

The advance comes a day after President Bashar al-Assad vowed to "purge the country of terrorists and to fight the terrorists without respite."

Assad also said last week that the "fate of our people and our nation, past, present and future, depends on this battle," underscoring the significance of the fighting of Aleppo.

Amnesty International expressed alarm about the plight of civilians around Aleppo, saying satellite images show intensifying use of heavy weapons near residential areas of Syria's second city.

The human rights watchdog warned both government forces and rebels that attacks on civilians would be documented and the culprits held accountable.

"Amnesty International is sending a clear message to both sides in the fighting: Any attacks against civilians will be clearly documented so that those responsible can be held accountable," Amnesty's Christoph Koettl said in a statement.

The London-based rights group said images from Anadan, a small town near Aleppo, revealed more than 600 probable artillery impact craters from the fierce fighting over the northwestern city.

Islamist militants captured a key checkpoint in Anadan on July 30, which has facilitated a steady flow of supplies from Turkey for insurgents in Aleppo.

Amnesty said that an image from July 31 shows what seems to be artillery impact craters next to what appears to be a residential housing complex in Anadan.

Amnesty said it is concerned that the deployment of heavy weaponry in residential areas will lead to further human rights abuses and grave breaches of international law.

"The Syrian military and the opposition fighters must both adhere to international humanitarian law, which strictly forbids the use of tactics and weapons that fail to distinguish between military and civilian targets," Koettl said.

The head of the UN observer mission in Syria, Lieutenant General Babacar Gaye, voiced concern for civilians trapped in the fighting in the city of some 2.7 million people.

Rebels say they still control around half of the city.

(Al-Akhbar, Reuters, AFP)

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