Aleppo battle rages street by street

By Kim Sengupta

Ambushes and air strikes, sieges and executions were the bloody order of the day in Aleppo as rebel and regime forces fought street by street to gain possession of Syria's largest city.

The violence, and expectation of more destructive strife to come, added to the fear and the growing stream of refugees fleeing their homes.

While continuing their resistance against armour and artillery in the districts of Salaheddine and Hamdaniyeh, opposition fighters took the offensive in other areas; police stations and posts were overrun with the defenders captured in some cases, but also many shot dead, and caches of arms and ammunition were seized.

The rebels, too, were in the gunsights of the enemy, as Bashar al-Assad's troops sent salvoes of mortar rounds and missile strikes from helicopter gunships and a warplane.

A new dynamic was also introduced into a conflict already deeply divisive and sectarian.

A militia from the Al-Barre tribe, chanting their loyalty to Assad, attacked near the airport, killing 16 revolutionary fighters and clearing, for the time being, a road through which soldiers and supplies can be brought in from Damascus.

But the capture of the security stations at Bab Al-Nerab, Al-Miersa and Salhain and, with that, the control of the adjoining neighbourhoods meant the rebels were making incremental territorial gains.

Each time, helicopter gunships appeared later to carry out strafing, but there was no sign of ground forces coming in to retake the positions.

The defenders fought hard. They were not just police officers, but members of the Mukhabarat secret police and also the Shabiha, the paramilitary militia drawn from regime loyalists.

Both groups have been accused of abuses, including torture and rape, in the campaign to suppress the rising.

Summary justice appeared to have been meted out in some instances, with corpses showing bullet wounds to the backs of their heads.

Asked at Bab Al-Nerab whether any of the officials had been shot after surrendering, a grinning young rebel said: "They did not surrender, they were caught." This was disputed by an annoyed older fighter, Syed Abdul-Qadar, who insisted all the deaths took place in the course of combat.

"But at the airport, the Barre killed people who had their hands tied behind their back," he added.

The bodies of the 20 officials lay at various parts of a police station which caught fire when Kalashnikov shots set alight flammable liquid inside.

The head of the rebel unit which carried out the attack, Omar Abdel Aziz Hatteh, said: "We offered them the chance many times to surrender. But the colonel in charge here refused to let any of his men come out and stay alive."

The body of Lieutenant-Colonel Maklesh El-Ali was later put on the back of a truck and taken for a little tour around the city.

More than 700 fighters stormed the police station at al-Marju in Salhain. The 45-strong security detachment inside resisted before a bomb made out of a water storage container and TNT was flung over the sandbags by two volunteers. Fifteen regime officials were killed and the rest arrested, except for four who got away.

"They were snipers. Three of them were Iranians, the other was a Russian," maintained Abdel Rahman Moussa, one of the rebels.

"The Russian must have been valuable. Right at the end they sent 200 soldiers to get him out. We keep on hearing about Russians and Iranians. Also, we think some Hizbollah people are here as well."

Rumours of foreign mercenaries in the pay of Assad, as well as the imminent launch of chemical weapons, were rife in the city, with no detectable evidence for either.

Also absent were the hundreds of foreign Islamists who, according to some Western news reports, have descended to raise the flag of al-Qaeda and jihad in Aleppo.

"Where are they? The Chechens, the Africans and the Pakistanis, all with so many weapons?" asked Abu Suleiman, a rebel officer, crouching in an alley as an attack on a fourth security post, near Sher Osman, mainly manned by the Shabiha, faltered as ammunition ran out and what appeared to be a MiG-23 aircraft dropped ordnance.

"We can do with them. No, not them, their weapons. That is going to be a problem very soon unless we start getting fresh supplies coming through. That may happen. The routes in the east have opened up."

The rebels spent some of their last Kalashnikov rounds providing covering fire as families fled from the street, a little girl crying until she was reunited with her caged mynah bird.

As they made their way out, an elderly man hobbled over to the fighters to offer his thanks, or so they thought: "You people are destroying this country. Have you no shame? I am 83 years old and I have seen nothing like it, even when we were fighting the French. Bashar al-Assad is a great man. He is the President."

With that, Mohammed Ibadullah Seif rejoined his family.

"Can you believe that? Here we are risking our lives to free the country and that's what the man says," said Suleiman, as his fighters laughed. He yelled: "Go with Bashar then if you love him so much, old man. But you would not wish to go the place where we are sending him."

- Independent

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