DAMASCUS: Fierce fighting between Syrian rebels and the army erupted on Wednesday near two Christian areas of Damascus for the first time in the nearly 17-month uprising, as the battle for Aleppo entered its fifth day.
President Bashar al-Assad said the army was waging a “heroic” battle against the enemy and the country was engaged in a “crucial battle for its destiny.”
As rebels and troops battled in Damascus and Aleppo, exiled opposition leaders bickered over strategy, with a prominent dissident announcing he had been tasked to form a government in exile, drawing criticism from the main opposition bloc.
A firefight erupted early Wednesday on the outskirts of Damascus’ Bab Tuma and Bab Sharqi areas, two traditional Christian districts of Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“First indications are that one soldier has been killed,” the Britain-based group said.
“This is fighting in areas where it has not happened before. These are areas where the rebels have so far not had access,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel rahman told AFP.
One witness said rebels attacked a military position outside Bab Sharqi at 4:00 am (0100 GMT) in a clash that lasted for 15 minutes. An AFP correspondent said calm later returned to the area.
Bab Tuma and Bab Sharqi in the Old City of Damascus were previously popular with tourists and were the scene of several pro-regime protests in the past.
Earlier the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) that organises protests on the ground, reported a blast and heavy gunfire from Baghdad Street, a main arterial route through the city.
The LCC also said that the capital’s southern suburb of Tadamun was hit by mortar fire at dawn.
Since July 20, the battle between the rebels and government forces had focused on the country’s commercial capital Aleppo in the north.
There were bombings during the night northwest of Aleppo, while heavy machinegun fire and Grad rocket fire were also reported in the area.
“The army and the terrorist groups have both sent reinforcements for a decisive battle that should last several weeks” in Aleppo, a Damascus security source told AFP.
The rebels sent in backup from nearby Turkey after seizing a strategic checkpoint just outside Aleppo.
“The Syrian army is surrounding rebel districts, and is bombing them, but it is going to take its time before it launches its assault on each neighbourhood,” the security source said.
The Observatory said fighting on Tuesday in Aleppo was the fiercest so far in a contest that state media had billed as the “mother of all battles.”
“Hundreds of rebels attacked the police stations in Salhin and Bab al-Nayrab (neighbourhoods) and at least 40 policemen were killed during the fighting, which lasted for hours,” Abdel Rahman said.
They later seized a third police station in Hanano, the Britain-based Observatory said.
On Tuesday 154 people — among them 35 civilians, 63 soldiers and 27 rebels — were killed nationwide, around half in Aleppo.
The pro-regime Al-Watan newspaper said on Wednesday that “the army has tightened the noose around the terrorists in the neighbourhoods of Aleppo.”
Channel News Asia