Syria rebels stage partial pullout from Aleppo district

AFP and Reuters, Thursday 9 Aug 2012

Syrian rebels declare tactical withdrawal from embattled city Aleppo's Salaheddin district as fighting rages with regime forces; Iran hosts talks on ending conflict

A Free Syrian Army fighter runs during clashes with Syrian Army in the Salaheddine neighbourhood of central Aleppo, Tuesday, (Photo: Reuters).

The Free Syrian Army staged a partial withdrawal on Thursday from Aleppo's embattled Salaheddin district, scene of fighting since July 20, a commander for the rebel fighters told AFP by phone.

"The FSA has withdrawn from two streets where there has been fighting in recent days," said Hossam Abu Mohammed of the Dara al-Shahbaa Brigade in the northern city.

"The fighters are withdrawing to (nearby) Sukari district, where they are preparing a counter attack against the army."

The commander cited heavy shelling and the regular army's use of thermobaric bombs which produce a wall of fire to incinerate targets in enclosed spaces.

"A large number of civilians were killed, as were some 40 rebels," said Abu Mohammed. "Forty buildings have been flattened."

Another FSA commander in Salaheddin confirmed that the rebels are staging a tactical withdrawal.

"We will open new fronts in Saif al-Dawla and Mashhad districts," to the east of Salaheddin, said the FSA's Wassel Ayub.

Syrian rebels had said earlier that they had regained control over parts of a strategic district of Aleppo on Thursday after countering a sustained assault by President Bashar al-Assad's forces seeking to retake Syria's biggest city.

They said army tanks had pulled back from Salaheddine, the southern gateway to Aleppo, and pockets of fighting continued across the district which Syrian official media said on Wednesday had been "cleansed" of rebel fighters.

As the battle for Aleppo raged, Assad's key foreign backer Iran gathered ministers from like-minded states for talks about how to end the conflict. Russia, a key Assad ally, said its ambassador to Tehran would attend.

Assad must win the battle for Aleppo if he is to reassert his authority nationwide, although diverting military forces for an offensive to regain control there has already allowed rebels to seize large swathes of countryside in the north.

As part of a broader army offensive, Assad's forces attacked rebels on several fronts including a neighbourhood near the airport in south-east Aleppo, several eastern districts, and a town on Aleppo's north-western outskirts, state media said.

Reuters journalists in Tel Rifaat, 20 miles (35 km) north of Aleppo, watched a Syrian air force jet diving and firing rockets, causing villagers to flee in panic.

Abu Ali, a rebel brigade commander, told Reuters in Aleppo he had rallied 400 fighters of the Amr bin al-Aas brigade in response to Wednesday's army offensive in Salaheddine.

"We are here to be martyred," he told his men before joining them - despite being confined to a wheelchair by a recent wound - and coordinating their operations via walkie-talkie.

"In Salaheddine now there are certain areas controlled by the (rebel) Free Syrian Army and some by the Syrian army," said Abu Ali, adding that his men were in control of the main Salaheddine square.

Despite persistent rebel concerns about low levels of ammunition, Abu Ali said they were able to keep some supplies flowing to the fighters, though he would not give details.

Though sympathetic to the rebels, Western powers, Turkey and Sunni Muslim Arab states have not intervened militarily. Russia has given Assad diplomatic backing which has blocked UN action against him, while Iran has tried to bolster the Syrian leader in an Arab world where many view non-Arab, Shiite Iran as a menace.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has billed the Tehran meeting of a dozen countries as an opportunity "to replace military clashes with political, indigenous approaches to settle the disputes". Those attending would have "a correct and realistic position" on the Syrian conflict, a senior Iranian diplomat said this week, indicating a one-sided discussion.

"The Islamic Republic's support for Assad's regime is hardly compatible with a genuine attempt at conciliation between the parties," said one Western diplomat based in Tehran. It showed Iran was "running out of ideas", he added.

Another Western diplomat said Tehran was trying to broaden the support base of the Syrian leader.

Aleppo, at the heart of Syria's failing economy, has taken a fearful pounding since the 17-month-old uprising against Assad finally took hold in a city that had stayed mostly aloof.

The intensity of the conflict in Aleppo suggests that Assad remains determined to cling to power, with support from Iran and Russia, despite setbacks such as this week's defection of his newly installed prime minister.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based opposition watchdog, said more than 170 people had been killed across Syria on Wednesday, including 33 civilians in Aleppo. It put Tuesday's death toll at more than 240 nationwide.

The military's assaults in Aleppo follow its successful drive to retake neighbourhoods seized by rebels in Damascus after a July 18 bomb attack that killed four of Assad's closest aides, the biggest strike by Assad's foes so far.

On Monday, Assad suffered the embarrassment of seeing his prime minister, Riyad Hijab, defect after only two months in office. Hijab fled to Jordan with his family.

Yet even such high-profile defections and outside diplomatic pressure seem unlikely to deflect Assad from what has become a bitter struggle for survival between mostly Sunni Muslim rebels and a ruling system dominated by the president's minority Alawite sect, an esoteric offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Syrian rebels, who have accused Iran of sending fighters to help Assad's forces, seized 48 Iranians in Syria on Aug. 4, saying they were members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

An Iranian Foreign Ministry official said on Thursday that all the Iranian captives were alive and well, contrary to statements by rebels holding them that three had been killed in an air attack.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi acknowledged that some of the men were retired soldiers or Revolutionary Guards, but said they were religious pilgrims, not on active service.

Damascus and Tehran accuse Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Western nations of stoking violence by backing Syrian rebels.

The violence in Syria has forced tens of thousands of people to flee into neighbouring countries, and about 2,400 refugees, including two generals, arrived in Turkey on Tuesday night.

Near the Syrian border town of al-Dana, a crowd of refugees from Aleppo crammed through a frontier fence as Turkish soldiers tried to keep order: "We could not endure anymore," Ahmad Shaaban, a grocer from Aleppo's Salaheddine district told a Reuters correspondent at the border.

"We have been deprived of everything. They have burnt our homes and have deprived us of our livelihood."

Short link: