Assad’s forces pound rebels in Aleppo

Syrian army tanks shelled Aleppo yesterday and a helicopter gunship strafed rebel positions with heavy machine-gun fire as they fought for control of the country’s biggest city.

After UN Security Council paralysis on Syria forced peace envoy Kofi Annan to resign last week, and with his ceasefire plan a distant memory, rebels have been battered by the government onslaught in Aleppo and the capital Damascus.

Tanks pounded alleyways where rebels sought cover and one shell hit a building next to the reporter, pouring rubble onto the street and sending huge billows of smoke into the sky.

State television said Assad’s forces were “cleansing the terrorist filth” from the country, which has been sucked into an increasingly sectarian conflict that has killed some 18,000 people and could spill into neighbouring states.

In Damascus, jets bombarded the capital on Saturday as troops kept up an offensive they began a day earlier against the last rebel bastion there.

A rebel commander in Aleppo said he expected a Syrian army attack on rebels “within days”, echoing the head of the UN peacekeeping department who said there had been a “considerable build-up of military means”.

“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.

Rebels tried to extend their area of control in Aleppo from Salaheddine to the area around the television and radio station, but were pushed back.

Syrian television said a large number of “terrorists” were killed and wounded after they tried to storm the broadcaster.

The UN General Assembly voted on Friday to condemn the Syrian government and criticise the Security Council’s failure to agree tougher action, in a resolution that Western diplomats said highlighted the isolation of Assad supporters Russia and China.

Russia called the vote a “façade of humanitarian rhetoric” behind which Assad’s foreign enemies were arming the rebels and worsening the violence that has elements of a proxy war between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam which could spill beyond Syrian borders.

Yesterday, Syrian rebels claimed responsibility for kidnapping 48 Iranian pilgrims in Syria and said they were checking their identities to show that Tehran was involved in fighting for Assad, a rebel officer said.

Tehran has asked Turkey and Qatar to help secure the release of kidnapped men, according to Iran’s state news agency.


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