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You're reading: Syria’s Assad urges his army to step up the fight

BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar Assad urged his armed forces Wednesday to step up the fight against rebels as the U.N. reported a significant escalation in the civil war with the military using warplanes to fire on opposition fighters in the battle for Aleppo.

Sausan Ghosheh, the spokeswoman
for the U.N. mission in Syria, said that international observers had
witnessed warplanes firing in Syria’s largest city, where intense
fighting has been raging for 12 days. She said the situation in Aleppo
was dire, with “heavy use of heavy weapons” including tanks, which the
rebels now possess as well.

“Yesterday, for the first time, our
observers saw firing from a fighter aircraft. We also now have
confirmation that the opposition is in a position of having heavy
weapons, including tanks,” she said, adding that for civilians, there
“is a shortage of food, fuel, water and gas.”

Residents of Aleppo
have told The Associated Press over the past week that jet fighters have
been strafing rebel positions and there are numerous videos on the
Internet posted by activists showing rebels commandeering regime tanks
after conquering their bases.

Aleppo, a city of some 3 million,
has been wracked by violence since rebels attempted to take it over and
succeeded in holding several neighborhoods despite daily assaults by
regime tanks, helicopters and warplanes.

On the 67th anniversary
of the Syrian army’s founding, Assad pushed his armed forces to redouble
their efforts in the fight in a speech that was not televised but only
appeared in the army’s magazine and the state news agency.

“Today
you are invited to increase your readiness and willingness for the armed
forces to be the shield, wall and fortress of our nation,” he said.

The
regime has characterized the rebellion as the work of foreign
terrorists, and Assad claimed “internal agents” are collaborating with
them.

“Our battle is against a multi-faceted enemy with clear
goals. This battle will determine the destiny of our people and the
nation’s past, present and future,” he said.

Assad has not spoken
in public since a bomb on July 18 killed four of his top security
officials during a rebel assault on Damascus and has only appeared on
television once. His whereabouts are unknown and it is not even clear if
he is in the capital.

He was echoed by his newly appointed
defense minister, Gen. Fahd al-Freij, whose predecessor was killed in
the bombing. He told the army to chase after armed groups and “kill
them, preserving the homeland from their evils and restoring peace and
security to the country.”

Syria’s powerful military, which has
largely held together over the course of the uprising, is vital to
keeping Assad in power. The pace of defections has been rising recently,
however. Neighboring Turkey reports that 28 generals have already
crossed the border.

In recent weeks, the military has unleashed
heavy weapons against the increasingly bold rebels who have brought the
fight to the country’s two largest cities. The military managed to drive
the rebels out of the capital Damascus a week after their assault with
fierce bombardments of neighborhoods followed by house-to-house
searches.

Minor clashes with the rebels around Damascus continue,
however, and in the early hours of the morning Wednesday residents of
the Christian neighborhood of Bab Touma in the old city of Damascus
reported a half-hour gun battle.

Government forces also broke up
two rebel cells in the capital, killing and wounding several, according
to the state news agency.

There was also ongoing fighting in
several other cities, including central Homs, on Wednesday. Homs saw
sharp clashes between rebels and regime forces and was bombarded by
mortars, artillery and rockets, according to the activist group Syrian
Observatory for Human Rights.

In Aleppo, the state news agency
reported several victories by government forces, especially in the hotly
contested rebel bastion of Salaheddine, saying dozens of “terrorists”
had been killed, including some with “African” nationalities.

A
high-ranking Western diplomat familiar with the intelligence assessments
on Syria said earlier this week that there is a great deal of concern
in the West over the flow of foreign militants into Syria to fight a
jihad, or holy war, against Assad’s regime.

Militants from
Chechnya, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have been joining
the rebels in significant number, he said. They are entering by way of
Iraq and Lebanon and bringing along skills gleaned from battling the
Americans and Russians, according to the diplomat, who spoke on
condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss such
matters.

In a message appearing on online jihadist forums, Syrian
militant Abu Hussam al-Shami called on Muslims to come fight a jihad, or
holy war, against the regime because it had committed atrocities
against its own people.

“We will not be satisfied until we turn
you into ashes like those under a cooking pot,” he said, addressing the
regime in the nearly 10 minute video translated by the U.S.-based SITE
Monitoring Service, which tracks extremist messages.

Ukraine’s
Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Dikusarov said a Ukrainian
military plane took off from Aleppo with 138 Ukrainians, 15 Poles who
were trapped by the fighting. The plane stopped over briefly in
Damascus to pick up some 40 Ukrainians before heading for Kiev’s
Boryspil airport.

The evacuees reached Aleppo airport safely,
despite attacks on the access road, said Polish Foreign Ministry
spokesman Marcin Bosacki. Most of those evacuated were women married to
Syrian men along with their children.

Rome-based World Food
Program said it was sending to Aleppo enough emergency food aid for
28,000 people. The U.N. agency is distributing rations along with its
local partner, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

Turkey launched a
military drill just across the border from a Syrian town it claims is
controlled by Kurdish rebels — a show of muscle aimed at Kurdish
separatists pushing for autonomy within Turkey’s borders.

The
Turkish government last week said Turkish Kurdish rebels have seized
control of five towns along the border in collaboration with their
Syrian counterparts. Turkey alleges that the Kurdish guerrillas they are
fighting have taken advantage of the strife in Syria to take refuge
there.

The idea that Syria, like northern Iraq, could become a
safe haven for Turkish Kurdish rebels is an anathema to Turkey’s
leaders, who otherwise have been very supportive to the rebels fighting
Assad.

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