Assad forces advance on Aleppo as rebels flee


BATTLE FOR ALEPPO:AS REBELS withdrew yesterday from the strategic Salahuddin district of Aleppo, Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, appointed a new prime minister to replace his predecessor who defected on Monday.

The new premier is Wael Nader al-Halqi, a member of the ruling Baath party from the southern town of Deraa, the cradle of the 17-month revolt. Dr Halqi had been serving as health minister.

Former premier Riyad Hijab fled to Jordan and is expected in Qatar, the prime regional mover in the campaign against the Syrian regime. While his defection was a psychological blow to the regime, its main preoccupation has been re-establishing control in key districts of Aleppo, in towns to the north of the city and in the restive countryside around Damascus.

Rebel commander Hossam Abu Mohammed said, however: “We have staged a tactical withdrawal from Salahuddin.”

“The district is completely empty of rebel fighters. Regime forces are . . . advancing into Salahuddin. We are still in the Saif al-Dawla and Mashhad districts east of Salahuddin,” he added.

Rebel forces were rallying for a counterattack from the southeastern Sukkari district, where a government source said the “next big battle” would take place. The state news agency, Sana, said the army had also “cleaned” rebels from two districts, al-Asilah and Bab al-Nasr, and reported it was “purging” Salahuddin.

The rebel Free Syrian Army’s Tawhid [or Unity] brigade announced it had destroyed three army tanks at a roundabout.

James Foley, a journalist observing the battle for GlobalPost, said rebels are also pulling out of Bustan al-Qasr.

A rebel spokesman reported the bombing by military aircraft of the town of Tel Rifaat, a rebel staging point about halfway between Aleppo and the Turkish border.

There were heavy losses among rebel fighters over the past two days. The government’s use of aircraft at this crucial phase of the battle for Aleppo – which has been running for two weeks – has prompted the rebels to renew calls for a Nato no-fly zone and for heavy weapons.

The towns of Qudsaya and Barzeh, respectively northwest and northeast of Damascus, came under attack yesterday, forcing residents to remain at home or flee to the city centre.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon has consulted with the Arab League on the appointment of a new joint envoy to replace Kofi Annan, whose mission ends next week. Two former presidents of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari and Tarja Halonen, are reported to be possible candidates. A source in the UN mission in Damascus said it could be transformed into a political effort as opposed to its original mandate which was to observe a ceasefire that did not hold.

Lebanon woke to the news that former cabinet minister Michel Samaha, who is close to President Assad, was arrested near Beirut over a “sensitive” security matter.

There were no official details over what the questioning related to. According to Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper, 20 “highly effective” remote control bombs had been found in Lebanon, allegedly part of a plan to carry out attacks in the country. Another suspicion was that the incident might be connected to an alleged plot to kill deputy Khaled al-Daher, a member of the anti-Syria camp.

Meanwhile, yesterday Tehran hosted a conference of “friends” of Syria attended by representatives of Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Algeria, Venezuela and 21 other countries to press for the Syrian crisis to be resolved by dialogue. Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Tehran “rejects any foreign and military intervention in Syria and backs . . . UN efforts to resolve the crisis”. – (Additional reporting Guardian)