Syrian armoured column closes in on Aleppo

 

The Syrian army turned its forces on Aleppo today, ordering an armoured column to advance on the country's second biggest city and pounding rebels there with artillery and attack helicopters, opposition activists said.

As hostilities intensified near the Turkish border, Ankara said it was closing its crossing posts, although the United Nations said refugees fleeing Syria would be allowed through.

At the Syrian town of Azaz, a few miles south of the Turkish border, rebels appeared in control after heavy clashes over the past month in which they succeeded in driving out government forces, leaving the place a rubble-strewn ghost-town.

Syria's ambassadors to the United Arab Emirates and Cyprus, who are married, have deserted their posts, becoming the latest officials to abandon the Damascus government, rebels said.

The 16-month revolt against President Bashar al-Assad has been transformed from an insurgency in remote provinces into a battle for control of the two main cities, Aleppo and the capital, Damascus, where fighting exploded last week.

Assad's forces have launched massive counter assaults in both cities. They appear to have beaten rebels back from neighbourhoods in the capital and are turning towards Aleppo, a commercial hub in the north.

North of Aleppo, the town of Azaz has been almost completely destroyed by heavy fighting. Burnt-out armoured personnel carriers sat on the roads where rebels hit them with rocket-propelled grenades. Bullet casings were scattered everywhere.

Most residents fled during the latest fighting, which drove Assad's forces out over the past month and ended in the rebels taking the Bab al-Salam border crossing with Turkey on Sunday.

Fighting in and around Aleppo is expected to prompt an exodus across the Turkish border, where some Syrian refugees are already complaining about poor conditions and have clashed with riot police in disputes over food.

"There is not enough food. They have broken our hearts, the Turks. Why are they doing this to us?" said a sobbing woman called Umm Omar, with her four children huddled next to her in a camp near the border.

Further south, Syrian forces used artillery and fired rockets today on the northern Damascus suburb of al-Tel in an attempt to seize it from rebels, forcing hundreds of families to flee, residents and opposition activists said.

"Military helicopters are flying now over the town. People were awakened by the sound of explosions and are running away," Rafe Alam, one of the activists, said by phone from a hill overlooking Tel. "Electricity and telephones have been cut off."

Opposition sources also reported helicopters and machine guns were firing on the neighbourhood of Hajar al-Aswad. The slum lies on the southern outskirts of the capital and has been a haven for rebels sneaking into Damascus from the suburbs.

In the north, opposition activists said thousands of troops had withdrawn with their tanks and armoured vehicles from Idlib province near the Turkish border and were heading towards Aleppo. Rebels attacked the rear of the troops withdrawing from the north, activist Abdelrahman Bakran said from the area.

Military experts believe an overstretched Syrian army is pulling back to concentrate on fighting insurgents in Aleppo and Damascus, important power centres for the government, while leaving outlying areas in the hands of rebels.

In Aleppo, helicopters were seen firing missiles throughout yesterday, residents said. Rebels were battling government forces by the gates of the historic old city. Troops fired mortars and shells at rebels armed with rifles and machine guns.

"I heard at least 20 rockets fired, I think from helicopters, and also a lot of machine gun fire," a resident near one of the areas being shelled, who asked to be identified only by his first name Omar, said by telephone.

Residents said fixed-wing jets had also flown over the city, followed by loud noises, although there were contradictory reports as to whether they had opened fire. Video footage posted by activists appeared to show a warplane firing its guns.

Assad's forces have occasionally launched air strikes from fixed-wing jets on other cities during the uprising, but tend to rely on helicopters for air strikes in urban areas.

The uprising has entered a more violent phase in the past 10 days since rebels poured into Damascus in large numbers.

Last Wednesday, an explosion killed four members of Assad's inner circle inside a security headquarters, a blow that wiped out much of the top echelon of his military command structure and shattered the reputation for invulnerability that his family has held since his father seized power in a coup in 1970.

Western powers have been calling for Assad to be removed from power for many months, and now say they believe his days are numbered. But they fear that he will fight to the end, raising the risk of sectarian warfare spreading across one of the world's most volatile regions.

Syria raised the alarm even further on Monday by confirming that it had chemical and biological weapons, prompting warnings from Washington and Moscow against using the arsenal.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said on today that Moscow, an ally of Assad, had received "firm assurances" from Damascus that its chemical arsenal is "fully safeguarded".

But Israel said that if Syrian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas used the situation to take control of the weapons, it would "act immediately and with utmost force".

As the revolt against Assad intensifies, top Syrian officials have started to abandon their posts. Syria's ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Abdelatif al-Dabbagh, and his wife, who is Damascus's envoy to Cyprus, Lamia al-Hariri, have defected and are both now in Qatar, the opposition Syrian National Council said today.

Brigadier General Manaf Tlas, a member of Assad's inner circle who fled Syria this month, appeared on television in his first public comments since defecting. He called on troops to abandon the government.

Elsewhere in the country, activists reported a series of killings by government troops and pro-Assad militia.

They reported an attack on a mosque in a village northwest of the city of Hama, with at least 15 confirmed dead. At least nine people were killed in army shelling of al-Herak, a town south of Deraa. In Damascus, activists said they found the bodies of 11 men executed by government forces in the district of Qaboun.

The accounts, like others from activists, could not be confirmed. Syria restricts access by international journalists.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which compiles reports from activists, said 1,261 people had been killed since the fighting intensified in Damascus on July 15. That made last week by far the bloodiest in an uprising in which activists say at least 18,000 people have been killed.

Reuters

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
football
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Assessor

£26000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: SAP Assessor Job T...

Power & Gas Business Analyst / Subject Matter Expert - Contract

£600 - £800 per day: Harrington Starr: Power & Gas Business Analyst/Subject Ma...

Year 6 Teacher needed for 1 Term- Worthing!

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: Year 6 larger then life teach...

SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: SEN Jobs Available Devon

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering