By: Hadeel Al Shalchi | Reuters –
ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) - Syrian forces killed 20 people in clashes with rebel fighters on Friday in a strategic district of Aleppo, the country's biggest city, activists said, while the United Nations said a long-expected army onslaught to take the city was imminent.
President Bashar al-Assad's forces killed more than 110 people in a series of attacks across the country on Friday and late on Thursday, opposition sources said, reporting intensified fighting in several cities including the Salaheddine district of Aleppo.
"Today fierce clashes are taking place in Salaheddine right now and there are 20 civilians killed. The district is being shelled by artillery and helicopters," an activist told Reuters by Skype.
The violence came within hours of former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan quitting as international peace envoy for Syria and underlined the impotence of mediation efforts in the 17-month-old uprising against Assad.
The fighting spread to Aleppo from Damascus after a bomb attack on Assad's security headquarters in the capital on July 18, which killed four of the president's senior aides and encouraged rebels to step up hostilities.
The Syrian army has reinforced its positions in and around Aleppo over the past two weeks, while conducting daily artillery and aerial bombardments of rebel forces in the city.
"The focus two weeks ago was on Damascus. The focus is now on Aleppo, where there has been a considerable build-up of military means, and where we have reason to believe that the main battle is about to start," Herve Ladsous, the Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, said in New York.
Russia, an ally of Syria, denied it was sending naval vessels to a Syrian port. The Defense Ministry dismissed a report attributed to a source on the general staff earlier on Friday that it was sending three landing ships with marines aboard to visit a Russian maintenance facility at Tartus.
Opposition activists said Syrian forces killed at least 50 people during clashes with rebels in the central city of Hama on Thursday, while a helicopter bombardment killed 16 rebels near the southern town of Deraa, where the revolt first broke out.
In Damascus, at least 20 people were killed when security forces fired three mortar rounds at a Palestinian camp that is home to 100,000 refugees, medical sources said.
Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and Gaza Strip condemned the attack.
Syrian troops backed by armor killed at least six people on Friday when they bombarded a southern district of the capital, where rebels have re-established a presence following a partial army withdrawal from the area, residents and opposition activists said.
In Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub, activists reported heavy clashes in the southwestern area of Salaheddine, which the army has repeatedly tried to wrest from the rebels.
Rebels said they had lost 50 men in fighting there in the three days up to Thursday.
For both rebels and the government, Aleppo with its 2.5 million inhabitants is a prize that could determine which side emerges dominant in a struggle that has already cost 18,000 lives, according to the opposition.
Rebels said on Friday they had captured a large police station in Aleppo after days of clashes. Rebel commander Abu Zaher said they had taken several police officers prisoner and seized weapons and ammunition.
Internet and telephone networks in Aleppo were cut for the third day, hampering attempts by rebels to coordinate and forcing them to use couriers to deliver orders.
Rebel control in areas around Aleppo is by no means total, with some villages loyal to Assad and others favoring the opposition. Police and soldiers were setting up mobile check points on some main roads leading into the city from the north.
Soldiers were launching rockets at insurgents from time to time from an infantry school north of Aleppo, rebels said.
About 1,000 Syrians, including a defecting brigadier-general, have fled to Turkey in the past 24 hours to escape the intensifying violence, a Turkish official said on Friday.
The group brought the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey to 45,500. At least 25 Syrian generals have taken refuge in Turkey.
Annan resigned on Thursday, complaining of "finger-pointing" at the United Nations while the bloodshed in Syria went on.
Annan's mission, centered on a six-point peace plan and an April ceasefire that never took hold, had looked increasingly futile amid the violence in Damascus, Aleppo and elsewhere.
Annan suggested that the continued arming of all sides in the conflict and deadlock at the Security Council had undermined his ability to pursue a diplomatic solution.
In an article published on the Financial Times website, Annan said Russia, China and Iran "must take concerted efforts to persuade Syria's leadership to change course and embrace a political transition."
"It is clear that President Bashar al-Assad must leave office," Annan said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, a strong supporter of Assad, said he regretted Annan's decision to step aside and referred to him as a "brilliant diplomat.
Moscow's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, suggested to reporters in New York that Western powers that had opposed "reasonable and balanced proposals" in the Security Council had undermined Annan's peace efforts from the start.
China expressed regret late on Thursday over Annan's resignation and said it was open "towards any proposals that would help promote a political solution to the Syria issue.
The White House blamed Moscow and Beijing, which together vetoed three resolutions intended to increase the pressure on Assad, thereby undercutting Annan.
Iran blamed "some interfering countries" for the failure of Annan's U.N.-backed peace plan, the state news agency IRNA said.
Britain, while insisting it had not given up on diplomacy, said it would provide more "non-lethal" aid for the rebels in areas such as communications.
(Additional reporting Dominic Evans and Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow, Tom Miles in Geneva, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, and Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing; Writing by Giles Elgood, editing by Tim Pearce)