Syrian rebels: Battle to 'liberate' Aleppo has begun

AFP , Sunday 22 Jul 2012

The Free Syrian Army announces mobilization of forces towards Aleppo, vows to protect all religious minorities living in the city

Members of the Free Syrian Army chant slogans against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Azzaz, Aleppo province July 17, (Photo: Reuters).

The rebel Free Syrian Army announced on Sunday the start of the battle to "liberate" the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub and a traditional bastion of President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The site of violent weekend clashes, several areas of Aleppo reportedly fell to rebel hands as the FSA pledged to protect religious and ethnic minorities, notably Christians, Alawites and Kurds.

In a video posted on YouTube, the FSA military council's Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi announced "the start of an operation aimed at liberating Aleppo from the blood-stained hands of Assad's gangs."

Oqaidi said the FSA would protect civilians, including "the minorities -- Christians, Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, Alawites, Shiites and Druze," among others.

The ancient city of Aleppo is home to several religious and ethnic minorities, most notably Christians and Armenians.

The FSA colonel told the Alawites that they need not fear even as fears of revenge attacks against the community to which Assad's family belongs rose.

"To our brothers in the Alawite sect, we tell you that our war is not with you, but with the Assad family gang, that God has destined to be of your blessed sect," said Oqaidi.

Aleppo is one of the world's oldest continually inhabited cities and its Old City is listed among UNESCO's world heritage sites.

Sunday's statement of Oqaidi on Aleppo said rebel forces were being mobilised to move towards the city from the neighbouring countryside.

"The FSA has succeeded so far to liberate most areas of northern Aleppo province, and the road for us to liberate the city of Aleppo is now open," Oqaidi said.

"We announce a general mobilisation by all rebel brigades in the province of Aleppo," he added.

Clashes broke out in Aleppo days after violence engulfed several districts of the Syrian capital Damascus.

The FSA's military council announced the start of the "battle for the liberation of Damascus" last Sunday, and fighting ratcheted up after a Wednesday bombing that killed four senior regime members.

The FSA's Supreme Military Council head General Mustafa al-Sheikh told AFP on Sunday that "a real war of attrition" was underway in Damascus.

"The regime is collapsing, the speed at which it is falling has increased. That means it will use greater violence in order to try and save itself."

Sheikh said rebels were capturing weapons from the army as defections multiplied and neighbourhoods were seized.

"As the regime resorts to all means at its disposal, the FSA still only has light and medium weapons," Sheikh said.

"But it is gaining new weapons as more and more defections take place and more arms are captured from defeated troops."

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