Syrian rebels resist army assault28/07/2012 - 21:12:05
The Syrian government launched an offensive to retake rebel-held districts in the nation's commercial hub of Aleppo today, unleashing artillery, tanks and helicopter gunships against poorly armed opposition fighters.
Yet after a day of fighting, rebel forces remained in control, said activists, suggesting they had successfully fought off the government's initial assault.
The international community has raised an outcry about a possible massacre in this city of three million but acknowledged there was little they could do to stop the bloodshed.
The foreign minister of Russia, a powerful ally of Syria, said it was "simply unrealistic" for the Syrian regime to cede control.
The state-controlled al-Watan newspaper celebrated the assault with a banner headline proclaiming the fight for Aleppo "the mother of all battles".
The rebels are estimated to control between a third and a half of the districts in Aleppo, especially a cluster in the north-east around Sakhour neighbourhood and in the south-west.
They began their attempt to wrest this key city from the government's control a week ago. About 162 people have been killed, mostly civilians, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which does not include soldiers in its toll. Some 19,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011, estimated the group.
Today, activists estimate that at least two dozen have died so far in the day's fighting.
Local activist Mohammed Saeed said the rebels have managed to keep the regime's tanks at bay so far with rocket-propelled grenades.
"The army hasn't been able to take any neighbourhoods yet, there are too many from the Free Syrian Army," Saeed said, referring to the rebels.
He estimated that about 1,000 fighters had poured into the city in the past few days to take on the Syrian army, which had been massing forces around the city ahead of its attack.
Tonight, according to the Observatory, the government appeared to have pulled back from its ground offensive and was resuming its bombardment of various neighbourhoods with artillery. Attack helicopters pounded rebel positions.
The international community has expressed growing concern that there could be major bloodshed if Syrian troops retake Aleppo. But Western nations and their allies have found themselves powerless to prevent the situation from deteriorating despite a series of diplomatic efforts, including a cease-fire agreement that never took effect.
In a statement, the Arab League expressed "deep dissatisfaction for the Syrian regime's acts of oppression," particularly the use of heavy weapons against its own people. It urged Syria "to stop the cycle of killing and violence and lift the siege off the Syrian neighbourhoods under attack."
The group's deputy chief, Ahmed Ben Hali added that the Arab states were preparing a resolution in front of the United Nations General Assembly calling for the creation of safe havens to protect civilians and to apply further sanctions on the regime.
Measures passed in the General Assembly are largely symbolic and not binding. The West and its Arab allies have been unable to pass effective resolutions in the more powerful Security Council. China, and especially Syria's close ally, Russia, have vetoed any attempt to sanction Bashar Assad's regime.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the bloodshed in Aleppo a tragedy, but asked what else could the government do against the rebellion.
"Now the city of Aleppo is occupied by the armed opposition; another tragedy is imminent there," he said. "How can it be hoped that in such a situation the government will simply give in, say 'Okay, I wasn't right, overthrow me, change the regime - it's simply unrealistic."
Russia has been a key source of support for Syria, although Moscow officials in recent months have said they are simply taking a more even-handed approach while the West offers support to the rebels.
French President Francois Hollande even chided Russia and China today, asking them to "take into consideration ... that it will be chaos and civil war if at some moment Assad isn't stopped".
It's been a difficult two weeks for the Syrian government, with assaults on its two main cities, a bomb that killed four top security officials and a string of high-profile defections.
The country's military apparatus, though, has remained intact and continues to crush the opposition's remnants in Damascus and its outskirts.
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