BEIRUT: Military helicopters pounded a rebel-held district of Aleppo today and armoured units positioned themselves for an onslaught that could determine the fate of Syria’s biggest city, opposition sources said.
Turkey, once a friend but now a fierce critic of the Syrian government, joined growing diplomatic pressure on President Bashar al-Assad, calling for international steps to deal with the military build-up.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group which collects information on the 16-month-old uprising against Assad, reported helicopter attacks on the central Salaheddine district of Aleppo and fighting elsewhere in the city.
“Helicopters are participating in clashes at the entrance of Salaheddine district and bombarding it,” the group said in an emailed statement. “There are also violent clashes at the entrances to Sakhour district.”
One opposition activist said he had seen Syrian tanks and armoured carriers heading for Salaheddine. The battle for the city of 2.5 million people is seen as a crucial test for a government that has committed major military resources to retaining control of its two main power centres, Aleppo and the capital Damascus, in the face of a growing insurgency.
While neither side has managed to gain the upper hand, the outcome of the uprising is being watched anxiously in the region and beyond, amid fears that sectarian unrest could spread to volatile neighbouring countries. Military experts believe that while Assad’s more powerful military will overcome the rebels in Aleppo and other major cities, but risk loss of control in the countryside because the loyalty of large sections of the army is in doubt.
“Assad’s forces are likely to achieve a tactical victory that will represent a setback to opposition forces and allows the regime to demonstrate its military dominance,” said analyst Ayham Kamel of the Eurasia Group, adding however that the rebels were getting stronger while the military was on the wane. Three rebel fighters were killed in clashes between midnight and dawn today in Aleppo, the Observatory said. It said 160 people were reported killed in Syria yesterday, adding to an overall death toll of around 18,000 since the uprising began. Video footage provided by the Observatory showed smoke rising over apartment blocks in the city into a hazy sky today. The sound of sporadic gunfire could be clearly heard.
At least 10 people were killed today when Syrian security forces went into Maadameyat al-Sham near Damascus, the observatory said.
Western lensmen freed from Syria
AMSTERDAM: Two Western photojournalists in Syria were held captive for a week by Islamic militants before being rescued by Syrian rebels, one of the men said on Friday. Jeroen Oerlemans, a prominent Dutch photographer, told Business News Radio of the Netherlands that he is not sure which group held him and John Cantlie of Britain, but said he is sure they were not Syrian. “They all claimed they came from countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh and Chechnya, and they said there was some vague ‘emir’ at the head of the group,” he said in a seven-minute interview from Turkey, where the men were resting after their ordeal. Oerlemans was also recovering from two gunshot wounds suffered during an escape attempt. His account would seem to add weight to reports that foreign Islamic fighters are going into Syria to support the rebel side. The Associated Press could not reach the men, who were expected to return home within days, for more details of their ordeal.