Special report

Special report: Hundreds of rebel fighters leave Aleppo after relentless shelling by regime forces

Revolutionaries abandon the frontline they had held with such resilience for the last 12 days.

Aleppo

It began with a few of the rebel units pulling out, sleepless and disoriented after two nights of relentless shelling, fearful that they were being surrounded by regime forces. By mid-morning the departures had turned into a major retreat, with hundreds of fighters pouring out of Salaheddine, many of them then straight out of Aleppo.

The revolutionaries had abandoned the frontline - a crucial strategic point - they had held with such resilience against massive battering for the last 12 days. They have also left much of an adjoining district, Saifaldallah. The pounding they had received for hour after hour from the air and the ground had been worse than anything before; The Independent was there very much towards the end of the onslaught, but it was still daunting and, yet again, indiscriminate.

Despite repeated attempts the rebels had failed on Wednesday night to dislodge around half-dozen tanks which had made their way to Salaheddine Square, setting up a bridgehead for troops and armoured carriers positioning themselves at the flank of the rebel fighters on 9 and 10Street who had borne the brunt of the attacks. At just after 3am the artillery rounds reached a new intensity and these fighters saw tanks rolling towards them through the streets of Salaheddine.

The breakthrough means that regime forces are now in the ascendancy, having broken the opposition’s staunchest line of defence in the narrow, twisting streets of Salaheddine. They are now in a position to bring in additional forces through Hamdaniyah, which they hold, and aim to link up with other troops at Aleppo Castle and the city’s airport. In addition, rebel fighters, un-nerved by rumours, have disappeared from some of the inner-city districts they had taken in the last two weeks.

In the afternoon the opposition Free Syria Army officially acknowledged that Salaheddine has been lost. Commander Wassel Ayub, said: “The FSA’s brigades have staged a tactical withdrawal from Salaheddine. We had full control of the district last night, but then regime forces bombarded in an unprecedented way.”

The pull-out gained momentum when the city was relatively quiet, with just a few rounds of shellfire in the distance and the odd helicopter-gunship firing overhead. We found the men of the Dar al-Sabah Khatiba (battalion) frantically evacuating their headquarters, a school at Bustan al-Qasar, well outside Salaheddine. “The soldiers are on two sides of us, it is too dangerous to stay here, too dangerous,” said an officer, Abdullah al-Fawzi. “We are just taking what we can carry.” Later, at a nearby town, Captain Abu Khalid was adamant: “We shall go back in there, definitely, but first we must take some rest.”

He had been in Salaheddine for the whole night. “The worst thing was when the tanks came in. We had destroyed them in the past, but this time there were so many of them and we were very tired. We fought along some streets, but then we had to leave, otherwise we would have all been killed.”

Ominously for the opposition, some of their best fighters from outside Aleppo, who had been at Salaheddine and the city’s second frontline, the Iron Gate, were leaving, anxious that their home towns and villages were unprotected if the regime did capture the city quickly and push on. The arrival of reinforcements from other places - the opposition claimed 20,000, although the real figure may be half that - had helped to balance, to an extent, the massive build up by the regime.

Among those going were men of the Abu-Bakr brigade from the eastern town of Al-Bab, their commander Zahar Sherqat, widely respected in the revolutionary ranks, was driving through the deserted streets by himself in a white Toyota Corolla ensuring that those in his charge was withdrawing in an orderly way. He also stopped in several neighbourhoods to assure the people that he and the rebels will be back.

Commander Sherqat, a slim, soft-spoken man, was at pains to explain: “There is absolutely no point in wasting lives, at the end we did not have enough heavy weapons. These will come. We can’t stop them at the moment, but we shall regroup and get back in here, not Salaheddine maybe but the rest of the city. Aleppo will break the regime, but it will take time, in the meantime we must protect our homes and families. ”

By late afternoon the rebels were talking about launching a counter-offensive and even claimed to have taken back some of the ground. But streets in most areas under their control were redolent of checkpoints, with fighters without transport desperately trying to get out. We gave some of them a lift to the Sahar district, in the outskirts, where minibuses were lined up to take people out of Aleppo.

An Islamist battalion which had become noted for its unfriendliness to outsiders including fellow rebels, and had claimed Assad’s army would be defeated quickly if only they had more fellow jihadists, were the first to run from Salaheddine. One of their getaway vehicles, a red pick- up truck, had been hit from the air, just as it had come out of the district. Remains of three bodies lay at the back. A passing fighter, Hussein Ali Motassim, gestured: “They were full of talk about their experience in Iraq and Afghanistan; bombmaking and IDs [IEDs] but at the end, nothing.”

Regime troops had initially made little effort to move forward as the rebels withdrew from their positions. By early evening tanks and armoured cars had begun to venture into these areas. But they did not stay for long, leaving after lobbing shells, although there was little by way of return fire. Later helicopter-gunships strafed an area from which the rebels had already withdrawn.

The attacks resulted in civilian casualties, a rising number in the last few days, carried by neighbours and family members to a field hospital. The medics, unlike the fighters, had not left, although the punitive action they face from the regime can be brutal, three young doctors arrested were found dead, another was killed by a sniper on Salaheddine Square yesterday despite wearing a white coat.

Hadil Ami, a female doctor in her early 20s, treating an elderly man with deep cuts to his chest and arm from broken glass, said simply: “This is the time when our patients need us the most, we have got those who are injured and traumatised but also very afraid. We can’t send many of the injured to the Government hospital, especially now, because they would be looking for Shabaab [rebel fighters] who are injured. I am not doing anything wrong here at all, I am doing my job, but that is not something which will interest the Mukhabarat [secret police] - they think we are all suspects.”

Regime forces, accompanied by the Mukhabarat and the Shabiha, the loyalist militia, were last night going through the houses in Salaheddine, searching for rebels. “What they mean are civilians they can capture and torture and then show some dead bodies saying they are terrorists,” said a fighter, Abu Karim, with cigarette burns and deep bruises from his time in custody. “They will be disappointed, everyone has either run away, or they are dead. But they will have plenty of opportunities to kill if they take back Aleppo.”

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