Middle East

Aleppo fighting rages, rebels routed in Damascus bastion

A Syrian rebel runs across a heavily damaged street to dodge sniper fire during clashes with government forces in the Saif al-Dawla district of the northern city of Aleppo on October 6, 2012. AFP PHOTO/Tauseef MUSTAFA

Aleppo, Syria: Aleppo was shaken on Sunday by the heaviest fighting of an almost three-month offensive against rebels in Syria's second city, residents said, as the insurgents lost ground in the capital Damascus.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, in yet another broadside against Syria, meanwhile, said President Bashar al-Assad should be replaced by Vice President Faruq al-Shara, whom he said "is a man of reason."

An AFP correspondent in Aleppo said warplanes were overflying the rebel-held Bab al-Hadid and Shaar neighbourhoods, where witnesses said fierce fighting had erupted.

"This is the worst fighting we've seen here since the beginning of the Aleppo war," a Bab al-Hadid resident in his mid-20s told AFP.

"From early morning ... there has been shelling on the area and clashes between the rebels in Bab al-Hadid and the army at the beginning of Arkoub district," which is located near the Hanano barracks.

"It looks like the army is trying to push the rebels as far as it can from the Hanano (military) barracks," the resident said, asking not to be named.

The military in July launched what it vowed would be the "mother of all battles" against rebels who had taken up positions inside Aleppo, Syria's commercial capital.

But the opposition has managed to keep regime troops at bay in a number of neighbourhoods while securing territory north of the city right up to the Turkish border.

As the fighting raged in Aleppo, Syrian state television said that government forces had pushed rebels out of two of their strongholds in Damascus province, Qudsaya and Hameh, where a watchdog said the bodies of 10 men were found.

"Hameh and Qudsaya in Damascus province have been cleansed from the armed terrorists," the television said, using the regime's blanket term for the rebels.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that the government had taken control of Hameh and said the bodies of 10 men, at least one of them a rebel fighter, were found in the town.

On July 18, rebels carried out a massive bombing in Damascus, killing Assad's brother-in-law, the defence minister and a general.

Since then, regime forces have pushed the rebels to the outskirts of the capital but have lost control of several border crossings and are battling to fully retake Aleppo.

The Observatory also reported that regime forces on Sunday pounded the town of Tal-Abyad in the northern province of Raqa, which sits on the border with Turkey and is held by the rebels.

Opposition 'inclined to accept Shara'

Turkey on Friday shelled a Syrian military position south of Tal-Abyad, as part of bombardments of Syrian military positions since Wednesday's killing of five civilians in a shell that smashed into a Turkish town from across the border.

The incident sparked days of retaliatory fire from Turkish troops on Syrian army positions and prompted a UN Security Council condemnation.

On Saturday, rebels cemented their control of Syria's northern frontier with Turkey after seizing the town of Khirbat al-Joz in the northwest province of Idlib after a pitched battle with regime troops, the Observatory said.

"The clashes at Khirbat al-Joz... ended when fighters of the rebel brigades took control of the area," said the Britain-based watchdog.

"The fighting lasted more than 12 hours and resulted in at least 40 dead among the regular forces, including five officers, and nine (rebel) fighters," it added.

Nearly 80 percent of towns and villages along the Turkish border are outside the control of Damascus, according to the Observatory.

AFP correspondent have passed through large swathes of territory in the Idlib and Aleppo provinces of northern Syria that have fallen outside government control, with residents running their own affairs.

With tensions between Turkey and Syria spiking, Foreign Minister Davutoglu urged that Shara take the helm in Syria.

"Faruq al-Shara is a man of reason and conscience and he has not taken part in the massacres in Syria. Nobody knows the (Syrian) system better than he," Davutoglu said on public television channel TRT.

The Turkish minister stressed that the Syrian opposition "is inclined to accept Shara" as a future leader.

Shara, the most visible Sunni Muslim figure in the minority Alawite-led government, is trusted by the regime and was foreign minister for 15 years before becoming vice president in 2006.

Since the uprising against Assad's rule erupted in March last year, more than 31,000 people have been killed, according to the Observatory.





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