Syrian army pounds rebel positions in city of Aleppo

Sat, Aug 4, 2012, 01:00

Artillery, planes and a helicopter gunship pounded rebel positions in Aleppo today as president Bashar al-Assad's forces tried to break through the insurgents' frontline in Syria's largest city.

Government forces clashed with rebels around Aleppo's television and radio station, activists said, and a local rebel commander said his fighters were preparing for a "strong offensive" by government forces on the city.

In the capital Damascus, troops backed by armour stormed the last opposition bastion yesterday in a drive to crush a rebel offensive that coincided with a bombing that killed four of Dr Assad's senior security officials. The onslaught continued today as jets bombarded the city, a resident said.

Syrian forces battered Aleppo's Salaheddine district, seen as a gateway for the army into the city of 2.5 million people. The fate of the district could determine the outcome of a conflict that has already claimed some 18,000 lives.

The civil war has intensified in the past few weeks, with fighting engulfing Damascus and Aleppo for the first time in the 17-month-old uprising against Assad family rule. The fresh battles in Damascus show Dr Assad?s victories could be fleeting as armed opposition groups regroup and resurge, possibly forcing the regime to shuffle military units to react to attacks across the country.

Meanwhile, Iranian state news agency IRNA said 48 Iranians were kidnapped while on a pilgrimage in Damascus today.

The pilgrims were seized by "armed groups" on the Damascus airport road as they returned from a religious shrine, IRNA quoted an unnamed official in Iran's embassy in Damascus as saying. The embassy knows the whereabouts of the pilgrims and is pursuing "relevant channels" to free them, IRNA quoted the official as saying.

Syria's state television channel reported that "armed terrorist groups" had kidnapped the pilgrims who were in a bus in the Damascus suburbs and said the relevant parties were dealing with the situation.

The fighting in Damascus appeared likely to drain the army?s resources as fighting stretches into its second week in Aleppo, 350km to the north. The two cities are crucial prizes for both sides in an increasingly brutal struggle that has eluded all attempts at a diplomatic solution and risks igniting a wider war.

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