Clashes rage in Aleppo, civilians flee 'street war'

Syrian rebel fighters claim troops loyal to Assad "forced to retreat", UNHCR estimates up to 18,000 displaced within city.

By REUTERS
July 31, 2012 17:22
3 minute read.
Free Syria Army member with an assault rifle

Free Syria Army member with an assault rifle 390 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Amateur video)

 
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Syrian helicopter gunships and artillery pounded two key areas of Aleppo on Tuesday, extending the army's campaign to control the country's biggest city, but rebel fighters said troops loyal to President Bashar Assad had been forced to retreat.

Syrian rebels aim to push towards central Aleppo, capturing the country's biggest city within days despite being outgunned by President Bashar Assad's forces, according to a local rebel commander.

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Heavy gunfire sounded from the Salaheddine district in the southwest of the city, where rebels denied they had been driven out by the army. Attack helicopters turned their machine guns on eastern districts for the first time in the latest fighting.

The army said two days ago it had taken Salaheddine, but Syrian state television said on Tuesday government forces were now pursuing the remnants of a group of "terrorists" there, in an indication that the army did not after all have full control of the area.

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Colonel Abdel-Jabbar al-Oqaidi, who defected from the Syrian army six months ago, told Reuters that government troops had tried for three days to capture the south-western Aleppo neighborhood of Salaheddine, and Assad's soldiers were increasingly demoralized.

The fight for Syria's second city has become the focus of the 16-month-old rebellion against Assad, with rebel fighters confronting government forces backed by artillery and helicopter gunships.

"We don't have goals for the coming months. We have goals for the coming days. Within days, God willing, Aleppo will be liberated," said Oqaidi, dressed in green camouflage uniform at an Aleppo school which has been turned into a rebel base.

Describing the growing conflict which has engulfed Aleppo in the last few days as "street war", he said the rebel aim was to capture districts one by one and establish control over them, before taking more territory from the army. The rebels now control an arc that covers eastern and southwestern districts.

Oqaidi told Reuters late on Monday more than 3,000 rebel fighters were in Aleppo, but would not give a precise number.

The fighting has proved costly for the 2.5 million residents of Aleppo, a commercial hub that was slow to join the anti-Assad revolt that has rocked other cities, including the capital, Damascus.

According to the UNHCR, battles between the Syrian army and rebels in Aleppo have forced many terrified civilians to flee the city by perilous routes or take refuge in safer areas, a United Nations official said on Tuesday.

"Thousands of frightened residents are seeking shelter in schools, mosques and public buildings," said Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

About 7,000 have taken refuge in university dormitories and many more are camped out in 32 schools, each housing 250-350 people, Fleming told a news conference. Her figures suggest a total of 15,000 to 18,000 displaced within Aleppo.

Those who remain face shortages of food and fuel and the ever-present risk of injury or death.

"We have hardly any power or water, our wives and kids have left us here to watch the house and have gone somewhere safer. said Jumaa, a 45-year-old construction worker, who complained it was nearly impossible to observe the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, now in progress.

"I would say 99.9 percent of the people aren't fasting. How can you fast when you hear mortars and artillery hitting the areas nearby and wondering if you will be next?" he said.

Turkey hosts more than 40,000 Syrian refugees, many of them in border camps where they complain of poor conditions. Iraq now hosts more than 12,000 Syrian refugees, far fewer than the more than 30,000 registered in each of Lebanon and Jordan, part of an overall total of 129,000 Syrians who have registered with UNHCR.

Between 10,000 and 25,000 Syrians have fled to Algeria, where they do not require visas, Fleming said, citing information from the Algerian government. The UNHCR has registered another 1,305 Syrian refugees in Egypt and 400 in Morocco.

UN agencies bracing for an exodus from Syria doubled the size of their humanitarian aid plan a month ago to cater for 185,000 refugees by the end of 2012.

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