AP Potraying the change of power In this citizen journalism image provided by Shaam News Network SNN, taken on Tuesday, a Syrian man removes a portrait of President Bashar Al Assad from a wall in Zabadani town, near Damascus. Image Credit: AP

Damascus: Syrian troops prepared on Thursday to launch an offensive on rebel-held districts across the northern city of Aleppo, a security source told AFP.

“The special forces were deployed on Wednesday and Thursday on the edges of the city, and more troops have arrived to take part in a generalised counter-offensive on Friday or Saturday,” a source close to the Syrian security apparatus said.

The source said rebel fighters had brought in their own reinforcements, estimating between 1,500 and 2,000 opposition fighters had arrived from outside Syria’s largest city to reinforce some 2,000 already fighting in Aleppo.

“They are mainly present in the southern and eastern suburbs of the city, mainly Salaheddin and nearby districts,” the security source said.

The airport is currently cut off from the city, as four of the five roads leading to it are under rebel control, the source added.

Rebels also said a regime assault appeared imminent.

“The army’s reinforcements have arrived in Aleppo,” Colonel Abdul Jabbar Al Okaidi, a spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army in Aleppo, told AFP via Skype.

“We expect a major offensive at any time, specifically on areas across the southern belt, from east to west.”

Okaidi added that some 100 army tanks — as well as a large number of military vehicles — had arrived in Aleppo. In southern Damascus, street battles were being fought on Thursday in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Elsewhere in the city, an activist in the southern neighbourhood of Tadamun, who gave his name as Abu Qais Al Shami, said several districts in the southern part of the city were under assault on Thursday by regime forces. “Last night was quiet but people woke up to the sound of explosions and shelling from seven o’clock in the morning,” he told AFP. Another Damascus resident reached by phone told AFP heavy clashes were ongoing in the southern Al Hajar Al Aswad district, where the regime was using helicopter gunships.

Meanwhile, Syria’s regime confirmed on Thursday the defection of three diplomats, but downplayed its importance and indirectly accused Qatar of encouraging “national division.” The foreign ministry confirmed the defections of Lamia Hariri, charge d’affaires in Cyprus, her husband Abdul Latif Al Dabbagh, ambassador to the UAE, and Mohammad Tahsin Al Fakir, security attache in Oman. “These ministry employees chose to abandon their diplomatic posts and go to a certain Arab capital, which is funding and encouraging these type of staff defections,” the ministry said, referring to Qatar, where the diplomats have reportedly fled.

The ministry said Hariri was “merely a diplomat at the embassy in Cyprus, temporarily charged with a caretaker role pending the appointment of a charge d’affaires or ambassador.”

It added that her husband, the Syrian ambassador to the UAE was “no longer at his post as of June 4.”

The string of defections come after Nawaf Fares, Syria’s ambassador to Iraq, left for Qatar earlier this month after publicly renouncing his post.