ALEPPO - Syrian forces clashed with rebels around Aleppo's television and radio station on Saturday, activists said, and a local rebel commander said his fighters were preparing for a "strong offensive" by government forces on the country's largest city.
Syrian troops back by armour stormed the last opposition
bastion in Damascus on Friday in a drive to crush a rebel
offensive that coincided with a bomb attack that killed four of
President Bashar al-Assad’s top security officials.
Syria’s civil war has intensified in the last few weeks,
with fighting engulfing Damascus and Aleppo for the first time
in the 17-month-old uprising against Assad family rule.
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 conflagration.
Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who is quitting as
international peace envoy for Syria, said in a commentary on
Thursday Assad should step down, urging Syria allies Russia,
China and Iran to persuade him to embrace political transition.
Western and Arab powers want 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.
U.N. member states on Friday voted overwhelmingly to condemn
the Syrian government at a special session of the 193-nation
General Assembly that Western diplomats said highlighted the
isolation of Assad supporters Russia and China.
In Aleppo, a Syrian activist told Reuters the rebels had
sought to extend their area of control from the Salaheddine
district, where the most intense fighting has been focused,
northwards to the area around the television and radio station.
“The Free Syria Army pushed from Salaheddine to al-Adhamiya
where they clashed this morning with Syrian troops. But they had
to retreat,” activist Barraa al-Halabi told Reuters.
A 19-year-old fighter called Mu’awiya al-Halabi, who was at
the scene said Syrian snipers surrounded the station and
targeted the rebels.
“We were inside it for a few hours after clashes with the
Syrian army but the Syrian army sent snipers and surrounded the
TV station and as soon as morning came, the army started
shooting. One of our fighters was martyred and four were
wounded,” he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said 110
people had been killed on Friday, 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.
Syrian television said a large number of terrorists, the
term it uses for the rebels, were killed and wounded after they
tried to storm the television and radio station in Aleppo.
A Reuters journalist who witnessed the clashes said a
helicopter strafed rebel positions with machinegun fire near a
police station which anti-Assad fighters took on Friday.
“Wake up, wake up. The army’s coming,” local rebel commander
Abu Ali told fighters sleeping in the Zibdeyyeh police station.
Black smoke rose into the sky from areas of Salaheddine,
which is seen as a gateway for the Syrian army into the city of
2.5 million inhabitants. Its fate could determine the outcome of
a war that has already claimed some 18,000 lives.
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 means”.
“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,” Colonel
Abdel-Jabbar al-Oqaidi said in Aleppo.
Faced with the Syrian army’s superior firepower, 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.