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Syrian rebels soak up intensified attacks

ALEPPO — Syrian helicopter gunships and artillery pounded two key areas of Aleppo today, extending the army’s campaign to control the country’s biggest city, but rebel fighters said troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad had been forced to retreat.

Heavy gunfire sounded from the Salaheddine district in the southwest of the city, where rebels denied they had been driven out by the army. Attack helicopters turned their machineguns on eastern districts for the first time in the latest fighting.

The army said two days ago it had taken Salaheddine, but Syrian state television said today government forces were now pursuing the remnants of a group of “terrorists” there, in an indication that the army did not after all have full control of the area.

Push for city centre

A rebel commander in Aleppo said his fighters’ aim was to push towards the city centre, district by district, a goal he believed they could achieve “within days, not weeks”.

The rebels now control an arc that covers eastern and southwestern districts.

“The regime has tried for three days to regain Saleheddine, but its attempts have failed and it has suffered heavy losses in human life, weapons and tanks, and it has been forced to withdraw,” said Colonel Abdel-Jabbar al-Oqaidi, head of the Joint Military Council, one of several rebel groups in Aleppo.

It has not been possible to verify independently who controls Salaheddine, a district that lies on a major road that the army could use to bring reinforcements into the city.

Oqaidi told Reuters late yesterday more than 3,000 rebel fighters were in Aleppo, but would not give a precise number.

Crucial test

The battle for Aleppo has become a crucial test for both sides in the 16-month-old rebellion. Neither Assad’s forces nor the rag-tag rebels can afford to lose if they hope to prevail in the wider struggle for Syria.

The fighting has proved costly for the 2.5 million residents of Aleppo, a commercial hub that was slow to join the anti-Assad revolt that has rocked other cities, including the capital, Damascus.

While rebels say they will turn Aleppo into the “grave” of the Assad government, thousands of residents have fled the city and those who remain face shortages of food and fuel and the ever-present risk of injury or death. (Reuters)

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