Army, rebels reinforce Aleppo for ‘decisive’ battle
DAMASCUS – The Syrian army and rebels sent reinforcements to Aleppo yesterday to join the intensifying battle for the country’s second city, as the United Nations pulled out half of its troubled observer mission.
UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said he had told Syrian officials that without a significant reduction in violence, the remaining 150 observers would leave on the expiry of the “final” 30-day extension of the mission’s mandate agreed by the Security Council on July 20.
Russia, meanwhile, ramped up its criticism of Western policy as helicopter gunships strafed several neighbourhoods of the commercial capital, causing deaths and injuries, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Clashes raged in Aleppo’s central Al-Jamaliya neighbourhood, near the local headquarters of the ruling Baath party. In Kalasseh in the south, rebels set fire to a police station, the Observatory said.
War planes overflew the city, breaking the sound barrier but not opening fire, Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
He also said the rebels “are sending numerous fighters to Aleppo to battle the regime because, for them, Aleppo is as important as Benghazi was for the Libyan rebels.”
“Aleppo is the capital of the north and the northern regions are already in their hands so, if this city falls, the regime is over and the two sides know it.”
A rebel spokesman told AFP via Skype that a “large number” of troops have been moved from the northwestern province of Idlib to Aleppo.
Free Syrian Army Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi said he believed the reinforcements were being sent because of the intensity of clashes in Aleppo, where several districts were “liberated” on Monday.
“There are clashes right now in Aleppo, so fierce that many of their troops are running away, while dozens of others are defecting on the spot,” Oqaidi said. “Their morale is very low.”
A Syrian newspaper journalist confirmed the rebels were also reinforcing.
“Hundreds of rebels from all over the north of Syria are arriving in Aleppo, which appears to have become the decisive battle,” the journalist told AFP.
The Britain-based Observatory also reported clashes in the Al-Hajar Al-Aswad district of Damascus, one of the last remaining rebel bastions after 10 days of fighting there.
Helicopter gunships and heavy machine gun fire pounded the embattled southern neighbourhood, the Observatory said.
Nationwide at least 45 people were killed yesterday, most of them civilians, after 158 people died on Tuesday, the watchdog said.
In Hama province in central Syria, a couple and their two children were killed as they tried to flee shelling. A video distributed by the Observatory showed grisly footage of the bodies.
As the violence raged, the UN Supervision Mission in Syria, deployed to supervise an April truce that never took hold, sent home half of its 300 unarmed military observers.
“UNSMIS (is) in a reduced format,” said Ladsous, who arrived in Damascus on Tuesday.
“About half the military observers have been for the time being sent back to their countries, so the mission operates on a reduced basis, reduced in numbers, reduced in team size in the provinces and does what it can,” he said.
“But of course taking into account the security situation, which of course in many places is extremely delicate.”
Ladsous said he had stressed to Syrian officials that any extension of the observer mission beyond the 30 days set by the Security Council would require “very specific and sustainable progress on the level of violence, which should subside substantially, and on the use of heavy weapons.”
Western governments have expressed scepticism about the chances that violence will subside sufficiently during that time, but Russia, which has been increasingly critical of Western policy, has argued that the observers should stay.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lashed out at the United States for backing the armed opposition, saying a US failure to condemn the July 18 bombing that killed four top Syrian security officials meant it was justifying terror.
“This is quite an awful position. I cannot even find the words to make clear how we feel,” Lavrov told reporters. “This is directly justifying terrorism. How can this be understood?”
And a Russian foreign ministry statement said a new round of EU sanctions agreed this week, which allows for the inspection of vessels and planes suspected of carrying arms, amounted to an air and sea “blockade”.
“Essentially, the measures taken by the European Union can be considered a declaration of a sea and air blockade of Syria,” the ministry said.
It said experts needed to look into the EU legislation to see whether it was in line with international law.
Rights group Amnesty International, meanwhile, warned yesterday about disturbing reports of “summary executions” by both Syrian troops and rebels, calling them “serious violations of international law.”
Two Syrian brigadier generals entered Turkey on Tuesday, bringing to 27 the number of generals who have fled the unrest, a foreign ministry official told AFP.
And Syria confirmed that the head of its mission in Cyprus, Lamia al-Hariri, had also defected.