Syrian troops say they have retaken rebel stronghold


GOVERNMENT TROOPS supported by armour have regained control of the rebel stronghold of Salaheddine on the southwestern edge of Aleppo, state media announced.

Throughout yesterday state television broadcast news flashes saying the army was “combing” the quarter – a strategic entrance to the city, Syria’s largest, and its main commercial centre. Rebels deny the regime has regained full control of the area and last night said loyalist troops were in retreat, pulling back from Salaheddine.

Rebel Free Syrian Army commander Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi acknowledged earlier that the district was under attack but not that it had fallen, while Col Malek Kurdi said his fighters continued “guerrilla war operations” against government troops. The rebel Tawheed [or unity] brigade claimed to have destroyed five tanks and to have downed a MiG jet near Aleppo’s airport. But these claims were not confirmed.

State television also announced that government forces entered other districts infiltrated by rebels. Dozens of rebel fighters were said to have been killed in the central district of Bab al-Hadid, near the city’s ancient citadel, a heritage site where armed opposition forces had taken up positions.

An unidentified official said the army had advanced “from west to east to cut Salaheddine in half”. Although they had rushed reinforcements to the city, the rebels – who claimed to number 8,000 – were reported to have withdrawn from their positions in Salaheddine and were being pursued into the Seif al-Dawlah district to the north.

Although Manar, the Lebanese Hizbullah channel, quoted a government source as saying the army was in full control of Salaheddine, clearing the district of rebel fighters could take time. Casualties were reported to be heavy and hospitals in the district were said to be overwhelmed.

A resident of Aleppo who reached Damascus late on Tuesday told The Irish Times the army had brought in fresh units and surrounded the city in preparation for a battle which could be decisive in the struggle for Syria.

The rebels, besieged for more than a week, are armed with heavy machine guns, rocket propelled grenades, mortars, surface-to-air shoulder-fired missiles and bombs. But they were said to be running low on ammunition, fuel and food.

A rebel spokesman in Salaheddine denied that President Bashar al-Assad’s troops had taken full control.

“Syrian forces are positioned on one side of Salaheddine but they haven’t entered and clashes are continuing,” said Abu Mohammed.

One activist with the rebel Free Syrian Army, who asked not to be named, said insurgents had fallen back to the nearby neighbourhood of Saif al-Dawla, which was under fire from army tanks inside Salaheddine and from fighter jets.

Following the publication of a video showing rebels executing prisoners, several high-profile local commanders have signed an 11-point pledge to treat captives as prisoners of war. One article stated: “I pledge not to practice any form of torture, rape, mutilation, or degredation. I will preserve prisoners’ rights” and will not use such means to secure confessions.

A rebel group calling itself the “Hawks Special Operations Battalion” claimed it had killed a Russian general advising Syria’s ministry of defence. He was identified as Vladimir Petrovick Kochyev, but he subsequently appeared on Russian television to announce that he was alive and well and not in Damascus.

Meanwhile, Turkey warned Iran “in a frank and friendly manner” against blaming Ankara for violence in Syria, said Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, a day after holding talks with his Iranian counterpart.

Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi flew to neighbouring Turkey on Tuesday seeking to mend a relationship severely strained by the Syrian uprising and to secure Turkish help for 48 Iranians kidnapped in Syria on Saturday.

Turkey was incensed by comments made this week by Iranian general Hassan Firouzabadi in which he blamed Turkey for the bloodshed in Syria and accused Ankara, alongside Saudi Arabia and Qatar, of helping the “war-raging goals of America”.

Jordan’s King Abdullah said President Bashar al-Assad’s heterodox Shia Alawite community could try to create a sectarian enclave centred on Latakia and its mountainous hinterland if he loses control of Syria.

However, Syrians dismiss such speculation, arguing that Alawites are no longer concentrated in the Latakia region and would not be prepared to retreat into a sectarian enclave.

Syrians also contend that the country’s Christians, Kurds, Druze, and Circassians are too scattered throughout the country to be herded into enclaves and, in any case, the Sunni majority would reject such a scenario.