Aleppo, Syria: Artillery and mortar fire reverberated across Aleppo early on Monday and a military helicopter clattered towards a district that the Syrian army said it had recaptured from rebels in battles for control of Syria’s biggest city.
The fighting came amid another military defection, this time the deputy police chief of Syria’s western Latakia city.The police commander ranks as one of the most senior police officers to quit Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s security apparatus and joins scores of other military officers who have defected and are now in Turkey.
Al Jazeera television said on Monday that one of its correspondents was wounded in Aleppo and evacuated to neighbouring Turkey where he is usually based. Omar Khashram is being “treated in a hospital in Turkey to remove shrapnel from his body”, the Doha-based channel said.
Meanwhile, hospitals and makeshift clinics in rebel-held areas in the east of the city were filling up with casualties from a week of fighting in Aleppo, an commercial hub that had previously stayed out of a 16-month-old revolt against President Bashar Al Assad.
“Some days we get around 30, 40 people, not including the bodies,” said a young medic in one clinic. “A few days ago we got 30 injured and maybe 20 corpses, but half of those bodies were ripped to pieces. We can’t figure out who they are.”
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 18 people were killed in the Aleppo area on Sunday out of more than 150 people, two thirds of them civilians, slain across Syria.
Outgunned rebel fighters, patrolling in flat-bed trucks flying green-white-and-black “independence” flags, said they were holding out in the Salah Al Deen quarter despite a battering by the army’s heavy weapons and helicopter gunships.
However, the government said it had pushed them out of Salah Al Deen, the focus of fighting in the southwest of the city.
“Complete control of Salah Al Deen has been [won back] from those mercenary gunmen,” an unidentified military officer told Syrian state television late on Sunday. “In a few days safety and security will return to the city of Aleppo.”
The army’s assault on Salah Al Deen echoed its tactics in Damascus earlier this month when it used its overwhelming firepower to mop up rebel fighters district by district.
Al Assad’s forces are determined not to let go of Aleppo, where defeat would be a serious strategic and psychological blow. But military experts believe the rebels are too lightly armed and poorly commanded to overcome the army, whose artillery pounds the city at will and whose gunships control the skies.
Rebel fighters, many of them from rural areas near Aleppo, still remain in control of swathes of the city, moving around those areas armed with assault rifles and dressed in items of camouflage clothing in an edgy show of confidence.
They were emboldened to strike at Aleppo and Damascus after a July 18 explosion that killed four of Al Assad’s top security officials in a damaging blow at the president’s inner circle.
Government forces have reimposed their grip on the capital and are eager not to allow Aleppo to slip into the hands of the rebel Free Syrian Army, whose checkpoints in some districts fly the black and white banners of Islamist fighters.
With big powers divided, the outside world has been unable to restrain Syria’s slide into civil war.
France said it would ask for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council to try and break the diplomatic deadlock on Syria, but gave no indication that Russia and China would end their longstanding policy of blocking measures against Al Assad.
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said on Sunday attacks on Aleppo were putting the nail in the coffin of Al Assad’s government, showing he lacks the legitimacy to rule.
“If they continue this kind of tragic attack on their own people in Aleppo, I think it ultimately will be a nail in [Al] Assad’s own coffin,” Panetta told reporters.
The deputy police chief of Syria’s western Latakia city defected and fled to Turkey overnight with 11 other Syrian officers, a Turkish official said on Monday, adding that another 600 Syrians had arrived in the last 24 hours, bringing the total number of Syrian refugees in Turkey to around 43,500.