By Erika Solomon
ALEPPO, Syria, Aug 1 (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad told his troops on Wednesday that their battle against rebels would determine Syria's fate but his written message gave no clues to his whereabouts two weeks after a bomb attack hit his inner circle.
Assad has not spoken in public since the bombing in Damascus on July 18 killed four of his close security aides although he has been seen on television.
His latest remarks - made as the two sides battled for control of Syria's commercial capital Aleppo - appeared in a statement in the military's magazine to mark armed forces day.
But it was not clear exactly when or where he was speaking, indicating heightened concern over his personal security in the wake of the bombing at the defence headquarters in the capital.
"The fate of our people and our nation, past, present and future, depends on this battle," he said.
In confronting "terrorist criminal gangs" - the government's usual term for the rebels, the army had proved it had "the steely resolve and conscience and that you are the trustees of the people's values", he said.
In the northern city of Aleppo, rebel fighters seized three police stations while fighting the army for control of a strategically important district.
Explosions could be heard on Wednesday morning and helicopter gunships cruised the skies as government forces tried to push the rebels out of the historic city and preserve one of Assad's main centres of power.
Earlier, at least 10 volleys of shells lit up the darkened sky and drowned out the Islamic call to prayer. Carloads of rebel fighters shouting "God is great" sped off towards the fighting.
The battle for Aleppo has become a crucial test for both sides. Neither Assad's forces nor the rebels can afford to lose if they hope to prevail in the wider struggle for Syria.
Since last month's bomb attack, the fighting has become more intense, reaching into Damascus and Aleppo for the first time in the 17-month-old uprising against the Assad dynasty.
Video footage posted on the Internet appeared to show that rebel fighters were carrying out summary executions in Aleppo in much the same way as government forces have been accused of acting in Damascus.
One video showed four men identified as members of the pro-Assad Shabbiha militia being led down a flight of stair, lined up against a wall and shot in a hail of rifle fire as onlookers shouted "God is Greatest".
In another video, a cameraman filmed the bodies of about 15 men lying dead at a police station. One rebel fired at the corpse of the station commander, blowing his head off. In both cases, the content of the footage could not immediately be verified.
STREET FIGHTING MEN
The Salaheddine district in the southwest of Aleppo has been the scene of some of the worst clashes, with shells raining dwon for hours at a time.
While the Syrian army said at the weekend it had taken control of Salaheddine, scrappy street fighting was still underway with neither government forces nor rebels in full control. Salaheddine resembles a ghost town, its shops shuttered, with little sign of normal life.
Rebel fighters, some in balaclavas and others with scarves around their faces, fired machineguns and assault rifles around street corners at invisible enemies. Wounded civilians and fighters were carried to makeshift dressing stations.
Syrian state television said on Tuesday troops in Salaheddine were still pursuing remaining "terrorists".
A rebel commander said his fighters' aim was to push towards the city centre, district by district, a goal he believed they could achieve "within days, not weeks".
The rebels say they now control an arc that covers eastern and southwestern districts.
"The regime has tried for three days to regain Salaheddine, but its attempts have failed and it has suffered heavy losses in human life, weapons and tanks, and it has been forced to withdraw," said Colonel Abdel-Jabbar al-Oqaidi, head of the Joint Military Council, one of several rebel groups in Aleppo.
Oqaidi, who defected from the army six months ago, told Reuters that more than 3,000 rebel fighters were in Aleppo.
According to an NBC News report, the rebels have acquired nearly two dozen surface-to-air missiles, which were delivered to them via neighbouring Turkey. The missiles could tilt the battlefield balance if the rebels were able to shoot down government helicopter and war planes.
FOOD, FUEL SHORT
The fighting has proved costly for the 2.5 million residents of Aleppo, a commercial hub with an ancient Old City that was slow to join the anti-Assad revolt that has rocked Damascus and other cities.
Thousands have fled and those who remain face shortages of food and fuel as well as the risk of injury or death.
"We have hardly any power or water, our wives and kids have left us here to watch the house and have gone somewhere safer," said Jumaa, a 45-year-old construction worker.
Makeshift clinics in rebel-held areas struggle to deal with dozens of casualties after more than a week of fighting.
Up to 18,000 people have been forced to leave their homes in Aleppo and many frightened residents were seeking shelter in schools, mosques and public buildings, according to the U.N. refugee agency in Geneva.
Rebel fighters, patrolling parts of Aleppo in pick-up trucks flying green-white-and-black "independence" flags, face a daunting task in taking on the well-equipped Syrian army.
Armed with Kalashnikov rifles, machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades, they are up against a military that can deploy fighter jets, helicopter gunships, tanks, armoured fighting vehicles, artillery and mortars.
Western and anti-Assad Arab states have for months been urging the Syrian opposition to unite.
On Tuesday, it appeared further fractured when a group of exiled Syrian activists announced a new opposition alliance to form a transitional government - a challenge to the Syrian National Council, a long established group they said had failed.
The head of the rebel Free Syrian Army criticised the new political coalition, calling its leaders opportunists seeking to divide the opposition and benefit from the rebels' gains.
Assad, a member of the Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, is now opposed by the leaders of other Arab states, nearly all of which are led by Sunni Muslims, as well as by Turkey and the West.
Within the region he retains the support of Shi'ite-led Iran, and in the U.N. Security Council he has been protected by China and Russia.
The U.N. General Assembly said on Tuesday it would hold a meeting on the crisis in Syria this week and diplomats say it will likely vote on a Saudi-drafted resolution that condemns the Security Council for failing to take action against Damascus.
09/09/2012 12:25 PM EDT
Syria Blasts Aleppo By Air
09/05/2012 7:50 AM EDT
Syrian City In Flames
08/25/2012 1:45 PM EDT
Lebanese Pilgrim Freed
Hussein Ali Omar, 60, one of 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims that Syrian rebels have been holding for three months in Syria, hugs his mother, right, upon arrival at his house in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, 2012. Syrian rebels freed Omar on Saturday in a move aimed at easing cross-border tensions after a wave of abductions of Syrian citizens in Lebanon. The Shiite pilgrims were abducted May 22 after crossing into Syria from Turkey on their way to Lebanon. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
08/24/2012 12:22 PM EDT
This image made from video and released by Shaam News Network and accessed Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012, purports to show the funeral of children in Daraya, near Damascus, Syria. Syrian troops backed by tanks and helicopters broke into a Damascus suburb on Thursday following two days of shelling and intense clashes as part of a widening offensive by President Bashar Assad's forces to seize control of parts of the capital and surrounding areas from rebel fighters, activists said. At least 15 people were killed in the offensive on Daraya, only a few miles (kilometers) southwest of Damascus. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network SNN via AP video)
08/24/2012 11:05 AM EDT
Lebanon Sees Heaviest Clashes In Months
Clashes between Assad supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime killed two people in Lebanon on Friday, the Associated Press reports. 17 people were injured.
The AP gives more context:
Syria was in virtual control of its smaller neighbor for many years, posting tens of thousands of troops in Lebanon, before withdrawing under pressure in 2005. Even without soldiers on the ground, Syria remains influential, and its civil war has stirred longstanding tensions that have lain under Lebanon's surface.
Read more on HuffPost World.
08/24/2012 11:02 AM EDT
A Sunni gunman fires a gun during clashes that erupted between pro and anti-Syrian regime gunmen in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. The latest round of fighting first erupted on Monday in northern Lebanon and at least 15 have been killed in Tripoli this week and more than 100 have been wounded in fighting that is a spillover from Syria's civil war. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
08/24/2012 11:00 AM EDT
Refugee Numbers Soar
@ KenRoth :
UN reports 200,000 #Syria refugees, 30,000 in past week alone. Many more internally displaced not counted. http://t.co/BaM6u59j
08/23/2012 2:00 PM EDT
Syrian boy Musataf Alhafiz, 11, who fled his home with his family due to fighting between the Syrian army and the rebels, carries his brother Saif, 9 months, while he and others take refuge at the Bab Al-Salameh border crossing, in hopes of entering one of the refugee camps in Turkey, near the Syrian town of Azaz, Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012. Thousands of Syrians who have been displaced by the country's civil war are struggling to find safe shelter while shelling and airstrikes by government forces continue. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
08/23/2012 12:09 PM EDT
Heaviest Bombardment This Month
Helicopter gunships shelled Damascus on Wednesday as Syrian security forces intensified their assault on the capital. Activists report that at least 47 people were killed.
"The whole of Damascus is shaking with the sound of shelling," a woman in the neighborhood of Kfar Souseh told Reuters.
Read more on HuffPost World.