Fighting intensifies in loyalist city of Aleppo


HEAVY FIGHTING yesterday engulfed Aleppo, Syria’s commercial hub, threatening to damage or destroy the old city, a world heritage site.

Activists said helicopters strafed and fighter aircraft circled rebel-held districts of the city.

The military also crushed rioting in prisons in Aleppo and Homs where inmates tried to escape. Up to 20 were killed in Aleppo and five in Homs, opposition activists said.

As fighting in Aleppo intensified, the army carried on mop- ping up rebel-infiltrated districts of Damascus. Citizens breathed a sigh of relief, although the dull thud of explosions could be heard from the countryside.

Aleppo may be a much tougher prospect for the army, since the rebels, who moved into the city last weekend, have been based in the farming villages to the north for many months and have been able to build up their numbers within the city. Furthermore, the city is 45km (28 miles) from the border with Turkey, which has given rebels sanctuary and training, allowed the US Central Intelligence Agency to provide logistical support and served as a conduit for arms supplied by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

By seizing the three main Turkish border crossings, rebels have ensured the flow of weapons and supplies from Turkey.

The government cannot afford to lose Aleppo, a loyalist stronghold which had not seen much violence before the rebel offensive.

A multiconfessional city, Aleppo is a bastion and symbol of the secular state that the regime contends it is defending.

To meet the twin challenges of retaining control of Damascus and reasserting control in Aleppo, President Bashar al-Assad has reshuffled his security team. The new appointments include intelligence chief Maj-Gen Ali Mamlouk as head of the National Security Council and former head of military intelligence in Lebanon Gen Rustom Ghazali as chief of political security.

Meanwhile, responding to a statement by Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi that Syria could deploy chemical weapons if attacked, US president Barack Obama warned Damas- cus against making the “tragic mistake” of using such weapons and said Syria’s rulers would be held accountable if they did so.

EU foreign ministers said Syria’s threat was “monstrous” and “unacceptable”, while UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said the use of such weapons would be “incomprehensible”.

The rebel Free Syrian Army claimed Syria’s chemical weapons had been moved towards the country’s borders “with the aim of putting pressure on the region and the international community” to stop backing the rebels. Israeli and US analysts have suggested these weapons were shifted to secure sites in the centre of the country.

The most volatile areas lie along Syria’s frontiers with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

As rebel fighters struggled to sustain the momentum of their offensive, George Sabra, spokesman for the expatriate opposition Syrian National Council, said it would agree to a transition government led temporarily by a regime figure if Mr Assad stepped down.

This position has been adopted by Syria-based opposition groups, including the National Co-ordination Committees and Building the Syrian State, and suggested a common policy might emerge.

However, council spokeswoman Basma Kodmani retorted: “There was never any question of a national unity government led by a member of the regime,” once again exposing rifts in the council.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who strongly supports both the council and the rebels, said the regime is panicked and “on the road to oblivion”.

The deputy chief of Iran’s armed forces, Brig-Gen Masoud Jazayeri, contradicted Mr Erdogan, claiming: “The Syrian people and the friends of Syria will not allow regime change.”

UN chief of peacekeeping Herve Ladsous arrived in Damascus to prepare for the extension of the UN monitoring mission.

Syrian forces killed up to 30 worshippers as they converged on a mosque to perform Ramadan evening prayers yesterday in a village northwest of the city of Hama, opposition activists said.

“We have confirmed the names for 15 bodies and there is a similar number estimated still to be collected from the streets,” said Jamil al-Hamwi, one of the activists, by telephone from al-Ghab Plain.