Street battles raging in Syria's largest city


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BEIRUT -- Rebel commanders in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo vowed Sunday to liberate it from government control as intense street battles there entered their third day. The struggle for the city was one of several urban clashes occurring across the country.

While the fighting appeared to be spreading in Aleppo, skirmishes in Damascus petered out Sunday as large numbers of government troops were deployed to shut down the rebels in one neighborhood after another where they had gained footholds last week.

"We have cleared Qaboun of terrorists, and now we are going to finish them off in other sections of Damascus and beyond," said one soldier wearing camouflage fatigues who was interviewed on Syrian state television.

The television report and videos posted online by activists from Qaboun, a northeastern suburb of the capital, reflected a situation similar to that reported in several other Damascus neighborhoods where fighting erupted last week.

State television showed deserted streets strewn with rubble and an occasional body rotting in the sun, and video clips from Qaboun showed asphalt streets torn up by the tracks of armored vehicles. Opposition activists said the government used tanks, artillery and rockets fired from helicopters to subdue various areas.

Fighting apparently still flared Sunday in parts of Mezze, a western neighborhood of the city, where videos posted on YouTube showed columns of smoke rising.

But Syrian government television sought to portray life in the capital as returning to normal, highlighting video from the Midan area, a battleground last week, where cleanup crews are seen wielding brooms and happy citizens are heard declaring that the neighborhood bakery was selling bread again Sunday morning.

Another report by Syrian state television featured interviews with people from a neighborhood where it said citizens had asked the army to intervene. People interviewed were seen thanking God that they no longer had to "live in fear," now that the terrorists -- the government's usual term for its opponents -- had been chased away and "security restored."

The lengthy state television report said the Syrian army was winning the battle on many fronts, including Damascus, Hama, Homs and other cities, because of the army's "long experience confronting terrorism and imperialism."

President Bashar Assad appeared on Syrian state television Sunday for the second time since the assassination of four top security officials Wednesday in a bombing in Damascus. This time he was shown -- though not heard -- meeting with his new army chief of staff.

In Aleppo, the opposition fighters seemed to be using momentum gained in the last week to spread the fight into new districts of the city. A report on state television purported to show traffic circulating normally, and claimed that foreign satellite channels were spreading false rumors about fierce clashes in the city. But a video from opposition activists seemed to show a column of tanks moving into one Aleppo neighborhood and spraying machine-gun fire into alleyways and apartment houses as they passed.

Neither version of events could be independently confirmed.

Activists said rebel fighters had the upper hand in three Aleppo neighborhoods -- Sakhour, Salaheddin and Meridian -- and opposition figures said they were pressing government forces on several fronts, including the area around police headquarters near the center of the city. The clashes that started in earnest Friday were the first sustained fighting to occur in Aleppo, the largest city in Syria and the country's main commercial center, which had been a bastion of support for Mr. Assad since the uprising against his rule began in March 2011.

"We issued the orders for the march into Aleppo with the goal of liberating it, and from there to liberate the rest of Syria," said a man in a crisp uniform who appeared in an opposition video. The video identified him as Col. Abdul-Jabbar Mohammed Aqidi and said he commanded a newly announced coalition of rebel fighters around Aleppo called the Unity Brigade.

He is heard encouraging government soldiers to defect to the opposition, and vowing that the rebels would protect members of Mr. Assad's minority sect, the Alawites, who account for many military officers and government officials.

"Our war is not with you, but with the Assad family," he says in the video in remarks addressed to Alawites.

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