ALEPPO, Syria: The Syrian army launched a massive assault on rebels in Aleppo on Saturday amid growing world concern about the risks of reprisals against civilians in the country’s largest city.
Troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships, which had been massing for the past two days, moved on southwestern districts of the commercial hub, where rebels concentrated their forces when they seized much of the northern city on July 20.
Artillery pounded Salaheddin and other neighborhoods from 8 a.m. (0500 GMT) as ground troops advanced, an AFP correspondent reported.
Trapped civilians crowded into basements, seeking refuge from the intense bombardment.
“The fiercest clashes of the uprising are taking place in several neighborhoods,” Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP.
“The regime’s forces tried to storm the headquarters of Salaheddin but, thank God, the heroes of the (rebel) Free Syrian Army repulsed the attack,” FSA Col. Abdel Jabbar Al-Oqaidi told AFP.
“We have now destroyed eight armored vehicles,” he said. “There are 100 tanks massed on the outskirts of the district.
“The battle will be hard because there is no balance of forces but we are determined and we have faith in God,” he added.
While the rebels’ small arms and rocket-propelled grenades are little match for the heavy armor of President Bashar Assad’s regime, Abdel Rahman said “the army has not made any progress since the morning, and even lost five tanks.”
Reinforcements were being sent from Raqa in the northeast, he added.
An activist calling himself Amer said “there are thousands of people in the streets fleeing the bombardment. They’re being terrorized by helicopter gunships flying at low altitude. There’s a large number of civilians who have taken refuge in public parks.”
Official news agency SANA reported fighting in Furqan district where “a terrorist group was terrorizing residents.”
It said two “terrorists” had been killed and three others detained, and their arms and vehicles seized.
Pro-government daily Al-Watan had warned the “mother of all battles” loomed in Aleppo as the government moved to reassert its authority after recapturing rebel-held districts of the capital earlier in the week.
Both sides acknowledged casualties were likely to be high as the more than 16-month uprising comes to a head.
At least 10 soldiers and six rebels were killed in Aleppo in the assault, the Observatory said, with at least 63 people dying elsewhere in Syria.
Russia warns of tragedy
Russia warned a “tragedy” was looming but said it was unrealistic to expect the government would stand by when rebels were occupying major cities.
“We are persuading the government that they need to make some first gestures,” said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose government has long had close ties with Damascus.
“But when the armed opposition are occupying cities like Aleppo, where yet another tragedy is brewing as I understand… it is not realistic to expect that they will accept this,” Lavrov said.
“Our Western partners… together with some of Syria’s neighbors are essentially encouraging, supporting and directing an armed struggle against the regime.”
Meanwhile, foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said Moscow would not cooperate with a new round of EU sanctions against Syria.
“We will not consider requests and give consent to the search of ships sailing under the Russian flag, nor to the use of other restrictive measures,” he said.
Last month, Russia attempted to ship three attack helicopters and an air defense system to Syria under a Curacao flag before being exposed by Washington.
The vessel was forced to turn back when its British insurer pulled coverage. It returned to Russia and swapped its flag for a Russian one.
Interfax news agency said Russia planned to delay shipment of the Mi-25 helicopters, which it said belong to Syria and had been taken back for upgrades, until security control was restored in Syria.
Turkey, which has given refuge to defecting army officers who have formed the kernel of the FSA, warned it could “not remain an observer” as the violence raged across its southern border.
“We must do what we can together in the United Nations Security Council, and also in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Arab League, to make sure that we can make some important progress in trying to avert this appalling situation,” said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon called on Damascus not to press ahead with its attack.
“I’m seriously concerned by the escalating violence in Aleppo,” Ban said. “I urge the Syrian government to halt the offensive.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron said there were “very real concerns that we have that the Syrian regime is about to carry out some truly appalling acts around and in the city of Aleppo.”
French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero told AFP that “with the build-up of heavy weapons around Aleppo, Assad is preparing to carry out a fresh slaughter of his own people.”
In late May, at least 108 people were killed near the central town of Houla, the United Nations said. On July 12, regime forces killed more than 150 people in the central village of Tremseh, the Observatory said.