By: Erika Solomon | Reuters
ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) - The Syrian military stepped up its campaign to drive rebel fighters out of Aleppo on Monday, firing artillery and mortars while a fighter jet flew over a district the army said it had retaken the day before.
However, opposition activists denied government forces had entered Salaheddine, in the southwest of Syria's biggest city.
Hospitals and makeshift clinics in rebel-held eastern neighborhoods 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 Salaheddine despite a battering by the army's heavy weapons and helicopter gunships.
"We always knew the regime's grave would be Aleppo," said Mohammed, a young fighter, fingering the bullets in his tattered brown ammunition vest. "Damascus is the capital, but here we have a fourth of the country's population and the entire force of its economy.
Bashar's forces will be buried here."
An unidentified Syrian army officer said on state television late on Sunday that troops had pushed "those mercenary gunmen" completely out of Salaheddine, adding: "In a few days safety and security will return to the city of Aleppo."
The army's assault on Salaheddine echoed its tactics in Damascus earlier this month when it used its overwhelming firepower to mop up rebel fighters district by district.
Assad's forces are determined not to let go of Aleppo, where defeat would be a serious strategic and psychological blow.
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.
Reuters journalists in Aleppo have been unable to approach Salaheddine to verify who controls it.
"Yesterday they were shelling the area at a rate of two shells a minute. We couldn't move at all," said an opposition activist, calling himself a spokesman for the "Aleppo Revolution" group.
"It's not true at all that the regime's forces are in Salaheddine. They didn't cross the bridge into Salaheddine from Hamadaniyah."
Warfare has stilled the usual commercial bustle in this city of 2.5 million. Vegetable markets are open but few people are buying. Instead, crowds of sweating men and women wait nearly three hours to buy limited amounts of heavily subsidized bread.
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 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 now intent on denying Aleppo to the rebel Free Syrian Army, whose checkpoints in some districts fly the black and white banners of Islamist militants.
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 U.N. 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 Assad.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Sunday attacks on Aleppo were putting the nail in the coffin of 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 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.
AFTERMATH OF BATTLE
The United Nations humanitarian chief said 200,000 people had fled Aleppo, only 50 km (30 miles) from the Turkish border, in two days. It was not clear how this estimate had been reached given the difficulties of assessing relief needs in war zones.
"Many people have sought temporary shelter in schools and other public buildings in safer areas. They urgently need food, mattresses and blankets, hygiene supplies and drinking water," said Valerie Amos, the U.N. official.
Cars entering one Aleppo district came under fire from snipers on Sunday and a Reuters photographer saw three bodies lying in the street. Unable to move them to hospital for fear of shelling, residents had placed frozen water bottles on two of the corpses to slow their decomposition in the baking heat.
A charred tank lay in the street. Another had been captured and covered in tarpaulin. Burnt cars could be seen elsewhere, some marked "shabbiha" - a reference to pro-Assad militiamen.
Syria's foreign minister also declared victory on Sunday in the battle for Damascus.
"Today I tell you, Syria is stronger ... In less than a week they were defeated (in Damascus) and the battle failed," Walid Moualem said on a visit to Iran, Assad's closest ally.
"So they moved on to Aleppo and I assure you, their plots will fail."
Assad's ruling system is dominated by his minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, while his opponents are mostly from Syria's Sunni Muslim majority.
The sectarian element in the conflict has raised fears that it could inflame Sunni-Shi'ite tensions elsewhere, particularly in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy and Dominic Evans in Beirut; Writing by Giles Elgood; Editing by Alistair Lyon)