Middle East

Fierce clashes in Syria's Aleppo as fire engulfs souk

A handout picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) allegedly shows Syrian government forces running during fighting with rebels in Tal al-Zarazir neighbourhood of the northern city of Aleppo on September 29, 2012. AFP PHOTO/HO/SANA


ALEPPO, Syria: Fierce fighting broke out in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Sunday as rebels attacked an army checkpoint near the capital, killing nine soldiers, monitors said.

Hours after a fire tore through a historic souk in Aleppo, fighting erupted in and around the Old City as rebels tried to seize control the district, said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Since last week, much of the fighting has focused on the area around the Old City, and this is believed to have sparked the fire in the centuries-old souk which destroyed many shops, said an AFP correspondent and the Observatory.

Meanwhile the army subjected several of the city's districts to intense shelling, and battled rebels in the northern district of Jandul, said the Observatory.

"There were many rebels and soldiers killed, but both sides are trying to conceal their casualties," Abdel Rahman told AFP.

Among the districts shelled by the army overnight were the southwestern neighbourhood of Salaheddin, the main theatre of combat between rebels and troops in mid-summer, the Britain-based watchdog said.

In Damascus province, the rebel Free Syrian Army attacked an army checkpoint on the road linking the southwestern town of Qatana to the capital, killing nine soldiers, the Observatory said.

The FSA also attacked a checkpoint in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, killing four soldiers, the monitoring group said.

Many areas of both Damascus province and Deir Ezzor have suffered intense army assaults, as the regime of President Bashar al-Assad tries to crush the insurgency.

Also in Damascus province, soldiers backed by aerial firepower stormed the rebel stronghold of Harasta as regime forces carried out arrest raids in the town of Zabadani, said the Observatory.

Violence across Syria killed at least 118 people on Saturday -- 48 civilians, 41 soldiers and 29 rebels, the Observatory said, adding to its toll of over 30,000 killed since an anti-regime uprising erupted in March 2011.

Elsewhere, troops trying to dislodge rebels fired heavy artillery into areas of the southern province of Daraa, central region of Hama and Idlib in the country's northwest, said the Observatory.

In the northeastern province of Hasakeh, the army fired on several houses, injuring several people, as security forces conducted arrest operations in the coastal city of Banias, it added.

U.N. spokesman Khaled al-Masri told AFP, meanwhile, that Mokhtar Lamani, the head of UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's office in Syria, met with a commander of the rebel Free Syrian Army in a central part of the country.

Lamani held talks with Colonel Kassem Saadeddine in the town of Talbisseh, Homs province, and other members of the FSA, which is made up of army deserters and civilians who have taken up arms against the Assad regime.

The official also met with the governor of Homs province, Ghassan Abdelaal, as well as representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross and Syrian Red Crescent.

Separately, Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari vowed to stop and search any flights from top Damascus ally Iran over its territory suspected of carrying weapons to Syria.

"We have assured U.S. officials that the Iraqi government is determined to land (Iranian) flights and carry out random searches," Zebari said, quoted by Arabic daily Al-Hayat.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed Baghdad to deliver on pledges to stop such flights during a meeting with Iraqi Vice President Kudayr al-Khuzaie.

Zebari said the flights first started in March and were stopped after the Iraqis called on the Iranians to do so. By late July, however, the flights resumed.

"They [the Iranians] said they were not carrying weapons or ammunition but pilgrims, visitors and other things," said Zebari, adding that "just to be sure, we will land these planes."

The United States, which has refused to arm the rebellion, unveiled on Friday a total of $45 million (35 million euros) in new funding for humanitarian aid and to help civilians trapped by the conflict.

Violence across Syria killed 118 people on Saturday – 48 civilians, 41 soldiers and 29 rebels, the Observatory said, adding to its toll of over 30,000 killed since an anti-regime uprising erupted in March 2011.

In its most recent estimate, the United Nations put the overall toll from the conflict at more than 20,000 dead.





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