Syrian army pounds rebel positions in city of Aleppo


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.

</p> <p align="center"><em>Above: video of heavy shelling today in the Syrian town of Rastan, north of Homs</em></p> <p>Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, who is quitting as international peace envoy for Syria, said earlier this week Dr Assad should step down, urging Syria allies Russia, China and Iran to persuade him to embrace political transition.</p> <p>Western and Arab powers want Dr Assad to step aside but Russia and China have used their security council vetoes to block attempts to force him out. They say outside interference is prolonging the bloodshed.</p> <p>UN member states voted overwhelmingly yesterday to condemn the Syrian government at a special session of the 193-member general assembly that Western diplomats said highlighted the isolation of Russia and China.</p> <p>Late yesterday , Syria?s official news agency Sana said government forces had hunted down the remnants of the ?terrorist mercenaries? - its term for the rebels - in the capital?s southern neighbourhood of Tadamon. It said several were killed and many others wounded.</p> <p>The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said 110 people had been killed in Aleppo yesterday, including 88 civilians, also confirmed the clash near the television and radio station. It said the terrestrial signal for Syrian television in Aleppo had been cut off.</p> <p>Syrian television said a large number of rebels, were killed and wounded after they tried to storm the television and radio station in Aleppo.</p> <p>A local rebel commander in Aleppo said he expected a Syrian army attack on rebels "within days", echoing Herve Ladsous, head of the United Nation's peacekeeping department, who said there had been a "considerable buildup" of military forces.</p> <p>"We have information that the Syrian army is planning a strong offensive against Aleppo. We know they are planning to attack the city using tanks and aircraft, shooting at us for three to four days and they plan to take the city," Col Abdel-Jabbar al-Oqaidi said in Aleppo.</p> <p>Faced with the Syrian army's superior firepower, Col Oqaidi said the rebels were counting on mass defections by government soldiers once the offensive started. "At the moment the soldiers cannot leave their bases and they are too afraid to defect. Once they are inside our city they will take off their uniforms and join us," he said.</p> <p><strong>Agencies</strong></p>

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