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Rebels’ offensive in Syria’s largest city spreads

Published: July 23, 2012 | 6:49 am
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But the regime is making gains inside Damascus

BEIRUT — Rebel commanders in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo vowed on Sunday to liberate it from government control as intense street battles there entered their third day. The struggle for the city was one of several urban clashes occurring across the country.

Activists said rebel fighters had the upper hand in three Aleppo neighborhoods — Sakhour, Salaheddin, and Meridian — and opposition figures said they were pressing government forces on several fronts, including around the police headquarters near the city center.

A new rebel coalition called the Unity Brigade, with about 1,000 fighters, said it launched an operation to control Aleppo, a longtime stronghold for the Assad regime.

While the fighting appeared to be spreading in Aleppo, skirmishes in Damascus dwindled on Sunday as large numbers of government troops were deployed to shut down the rebels in one neighborhood after another where they had gained footholds last week.

“We have cleared Qaboun of terrorists, and now we are going to finish them off in other sections of Damascus and beyond,’’ said one soldier wearing camouflage fatigues who was interviewed on Syrian state TV.

That report and videos posted online by activists from Qaboun, a northeastern suburb, reflected a situation similar to that reported in other Damascus neighborhoods where fighting erupted last week.

State television showed deserted streets strewn with rubble, and video clips from Qaboun showed asphalt streets torn up by the tracks of armored vehicles. Opposition activists said the government used tanks, artillery, and rockets fired from helicopters to subdue various areas.

Fighting apparently still flared Sunday in parts of Mezze, a western neighborhood of the city, where videos posted on YouTube showed columns of smoke rising.

But Syrian government television sought to portray life in the capital as returning to normal, highlighting video from the Midan area, a battleground last week, where cleanup crews are seen wielding brooms and happy citizens are heard declaring that the neighborhood bakery was selling bread again on Sunday morning.

Another report by Syrian state television featured interviews with people from a neighborhood where it said citizens had asked the army to intervene. The interviewees were seen thanking God that they no longer had to ‘‘live in fear,’’ now that the terrorists — the government’s usual term for its opponents — had been chased away and ‘‘security restored.’’

The lengthy state television report said the Syrian Army was winning the battle on many fronts, including Damascus, Hama, Homs, and other cities, because of the army’s ‘‘long experience confronting terrorism and imperialism.’’

President Bashar Assad appeared on Syrian state TV on Sunday for the second time since the assassination of four top security officials on Wednesday in a bombing in Damascus. This time he was shown — though not heard — meeting with his new army chief of staff.

In Aleppo, the opposition fighters seemed to be using momentum gained in the last week to spread the fight into new districts of the city.

A report on state television purported to show traffic circulating normally and claimed that foreign satellite channels were spreading false rumors about fierce clashes in the city. But a video from opposition activists seemed to show a column of tanks moving into one Aleppo neighborhood and spraying machine-gun fire into alleyways and apartment houses as they passed.

Neither version of events could be confirmed.

The clashes that started in earnest on Friday were the first sustained fighting to occur in Aleppo, the largest city in Syria and the country’s main commercial center, which had been a bastion of support for Assad since the uprising against his rule began in March 2011.

The push into Aleppo follows weeks of high-level military defections, soaring death tolls, fierce fighting near Assad’s seat of power, and the bomb blast that killed four top players in his regime’s efforts to crush the uprising. Rebels also captured several border crossings with neighboring Iraq and Turkey.

The opposition’s momentum put the regime on the defensive for the first time in the 16-month conflict.

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