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Syria Crisis: Aleppo Ground Battle Launched By Regime Forces

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In this Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012 photo, Free Syrian Army soldiers hold their weapons during clashes with government forces in at the south-west district of Salah al-Din in Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Alberto Prieto)
In this Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012 photo, Free Syrian Army soldiers hold their weapons during clashes with government forces in at the south-west district of Salah al-Din in Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Alberto Prieto)

TEL RIFAT, Syria — Syria launched a ground assault Wednesday on rebel-held areas of the besieged city of Aleppo, the center of battles between government forces and opposition fighters for more than two weeks.

It was not immediately clear if the offensive was "the mother of all battles" that Syria's state-controlled media vowed last month would take place for control of Aleppo. In recent weeks, the regime's blistering attacks on rebel positions seem to have slowly chipped away at the opposition's grip on its strongholds in the country's largest city.

The official SANA news agency said regime forces have fully regained control of the Salaheddine neighborhood, the main rebel area in Aleppo. It claimed the "fall" of hundreds of "armed terrorists," the government's catchall term for its opponents, without specifying what that meant.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said troops met resistance in the offensive.

About 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of Aleppo, Syrian fighter jets carried out airstrikes early Wednesday on the village of Tel Rifat, hitting a home and a high school and killing six people from the same family, residents said.

Resident Mohammed Zakkour, 35, said the sound of the jets and blasts jolted him awake and he left his house to see a huge cloud of dust and smoke rising above the village.

Hours later, all that remained of a small home in the village was a tangled pile of rubble and iron bars. A bouquet of plastic red flowers poked out of the rubble, and clothes still hung from one of the few walls that remained standing.

There was a large bloodstain on a rock where residents said they found one of the bodies.

"The bodies were under the rubble," Zakkour said. "Some were cut in half and parts of them had been blown onto the neighbors' roofs."

Neighbors said the six were members of the Blaw family: the grandfather, his adult daughter and son, the son's wife and two of their cousins.

Other strikes left two car-sized craters in the courtyard of the adjacent Tadamor Girls' High School.

It was unclear why the area was targeted. Residents said government forces often shelled the village, but that this had been the first airstrike. They acknowledged that there were some rebels in the village, though an Associated Press reporter saw no armed men during a brief drive through the area.

Residents said the Blaw family was not involved in the uprising.

"They were simple farmers who had a tractor and a car wash," Zakkour said. "They never had anything to do with politics."

The international community has widely condemned the Syrian regime's use of fighter planes in the civil war. The attention has focused on the struggle for Aleppo, but Wednesday's attack shows that the regime is using such methods elsewhere.

Chaos is mounting inside Syria as the country's civil war deepens. President Bashar Assad's regime has suffered a series of setbacks over the past month: Four senior security officials were assassinated in Damascus, there have been a string of high-level defections including the prime minister this week, and government forces have struggled to put down rebel challenges in Damascus and Aleppo.

But the regime has far more powerful weapons than the rebels and retains a firm grip on much of the country.

Aleppo, Syria's commercial center, holds great symbolic and strategic importance. Some 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the Turkish border, it has been a pillar of regime support during the uprising. An opposition victory there would allow easier access for weapons and fighters from Turkey, where many rebels are based.

A foreign diplomat in Turkey told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the rebels were likely not receiving any heavy weapons, making any chance of their taking over Aleppo exceedingly low. The diplomat asked that his name and details of his position not be published because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

There has been a marked increase in the number of refugees fleeing to Turkey in the past two days as Aleppo-based activists reported fresh clashes.

Some 3,350 people crossed the border overnight and Wednesday to escape the escalating violence, Turkey's state-run news agency reported Wednesday. Some 50,000 Syrians have now found refuge in Turkey. Even more refugees have crossed into Jordan and Lebanon.

"Unfortunately, there is a human tragedy going on in Syria," Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan said Wednesday, keeping up Turkey's criticism of the violence.

The regime has been hit by a wave of defections, most recently by Prime Minister Riad Hijab.

The rebel Free Syrian Army and a Jordanian security official said Hijab arrived in Jordan on Wednesday, two days after hiding in a "safe location" inside Syria near the border.

FSA leader Ahmed Kassem, who told The Associated Press on Monday that Hijab had defected to Jordan, said Wednesday that he had actually been inside Syrian territory for the past two days waiting to cross. He said his earlier account was meant to "confuse the Syrian regime over the prime minister's whereabouts."

A Jordanian security official said Hijab's escape was coordinated between the Jordanian army and FSA. He insisted on anonymity because he is not allowed to speak to the media.

Assad has been forced to rely on a shrinking list of allies, including Iran. Senior Iranian envoy Saeed Jalili visited Damascus on Tuesday, appearing with Assad in a show of solidarity.

The rebels have blasted Iran's influence in the country, and over the weekend rebel forces intercepted a bus carrying 48 Iranians and kidnapped them. Rebels claimed the men are military personnel, including some members of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard who were on a "reconnaissance mission" to help Assad's crackdown on the uprising.

Iran initially said the 48 were pilgrims visiting a Shiite shrine in Damascus. The Iranian foreign minister said Wednesday that some of the kidnapped Iranians are retired members of the army and Revolutionary Guard.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran has announced openly that some of the pilgrims kidnapped are retired members of the Guard and the Army," Iran's official IRNA news agency quoted Salehi as saying during a visit to Turkey.

"If these people had been dispatched to Syria for specific purposes, then how did they drive in a normal bus without equipment and holding their identification cards?" Salehi asked.

Iran's Revolutionary Guard is the nation's largest military force.

___

AP writers Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Beirut, Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, and Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.

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lebanon 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)


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France24 correspondents Matthieu Mabin and Sofia Amara report from the front lines of a rebel offensive against the Syrian army in Damascus.

Watch the exclusive report in the video below.

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syria 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)


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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.

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lebanon 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)


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@ KenRoth : UN reports 200,000 #Syria refugees, 30,000 in past week alone. Many more internally displaced not counted. http://t.co/BaM6u59j

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syria 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)


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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.

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@ jenanmoussa : Graphic. We saw in a mosque in #Syria these 4 children staring at dead body. Pic by @HaraldDoornbos: http://t.co/lgq8IAmO #warsucks @akhbar

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lebanon Lebanese commandos ride in an armored personnel carrier in preparation to enter the area of clashes between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime, in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012. The civil war in Syria is affecting its fragile, tiny neighbor Lebanon in countless ways and has already spilled over into sectarian street clashes, kidnappings and general government paralysis.(AP Photo/Hussein Malla)


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Activists say that Syrian security forces swept through two districts in Damascus on Wednesday, killing at least 31 suspected opposition fighters. The Associated Press reports that the army may have been targeting rebel teams that had been using the Nahr Eishah and Kfar Soussa neighborhoods to shell a nearby military airport.

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@ AP : Russia says Western powers are "openly instigating" opposition groups in Syria: http://t.co/Il6rHsxr -SC

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