By Mariam Karouny
BEIRUT, July 26 (Reuters) - Damascus and Syria's second biggest city, Aleppo, came under shell fire on Thursday as troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad stepped up efforts to crush rebels threatening the government's two main power centres.
One of the most senior figures to defect from Assad's inner circle, Brigadier General Manaf Tlas, put himself forward as someone who could help unite the fragmented opposition inside and outside Syria on a blueprint for a transfer of power.
A bomb attack that killed four of Assad's closest lieutenants last week prompted predictions among his enemies that the 46-year-old president's time in power was drawing to a close.
But in the days that have followed that attack, Assad's forces have noticeably toughened their response to the armed revolt, with fixed-wing combat aircraft seen in action over Aleppo and rebel fighters said by opposition sources to have been summarily executed on the streets of Damascus.
Residents in the capital reported a shell landing in southern districts every minute on Thursday morning. Helicopters were attacking the Hajar-al-Aswad district, one of the last rebel strongholds in the city after days of street fighting, opposition activists said.
After a major assault on rebels in Damascus last week, the army has turned to Aleppo, reinforcing troops there with an armoured column that had been operating in a northern province, apparent evidence of the government's aim not to lose control of Syria's commercial capital, a city of 2.5 million.
Fierce clashes raged in the early hours of Thursday in Aleppo, and an activist said rebels now controlled half of the city, a claim that could not be independently verified.
"There was shelling this morning on the Salaheddine and Mashhad districts," said Aleppo activist Abu Hisham. "Now it has stopped, but helicopters are buzzing overhead."
Activists said 24 people were killed in fighting in and around Aleppo on Wednesday, swelling a national death toll of about 18,000 since the revolt against Assad began 16 months ago.
In the Syrian capital, a resident in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp reported heavy shelling, particularly near the southern Hajar al-Aswad district.
SHELLS LANDING EVERY MINUTE
She said the army seemed to be targeting sites on the edges of the camp, firing shells every minute. The bombardment started around 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) and was still going three hours later.
As hostilities have intensified in the north, in and around Aleppo, Turkey closed its border posts to commercial traffic on Wednesday, but not to refugees fleeing Syria.
At the Syrian town of Azaz, a few miles south of the Turkish border, rebels appeared in control after heavy clashes over the past month in which they succeeded in driving government forces out of what had become a rubble-strewn ghost town, a Reuters correspondent who visited the town said.
Military experts believe an overstretched Syrian army is pulling back to concentrate on Aleppo and Damascus, while leaving outlying areas in the hands of rebels.
In its most recent comment on the fighting, state-run Syrian television said on Wednesday that government troops were imposing security and stability in and around Aleppo.
"The terrorists are suffering terrible losses. Groups of them are throwing their weapons away and giving themselves up. Others are fleeing for the Turkish border," the television said.
Assad himself has not spoken in public in more than a week since the Damascus bomb attack on his inner circle, confining himself to appearing at formal televised events.
General Tlas, a former friend of Assad's who could play a role in any transition of power, said he had not defected from Syria in order to play a leadership role.
"I am discussing with ... people outside Syria to reach a consensus with those inside," he told Thursday's edition of the Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.
"I left (Syria)...to try to help the best I can to unite the honourable people inside and outside Syria to set out a road map to get Syria out of this crisis".
Tlas, who is in Jeddah and has been interviewed by a Saudi-owned newspaper and a television station, appeared to have tacit Saudi support for his stance.
The general, a Sunni Muslim member of Assad's mostly Alawite inner circle and a senior officer in the Republican Guards, defected earlier this month.
"I will cooperate with every honourable person who wants to rebuild Syria, be it the National Council or the (rebel) Free Syria Army," he said.
Western powers have been calling for Assad to be removed from office for months, but they fear that he will fight to the end, raising the risk of sectarian warfare spreading across one of the world's most volatile regions.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, addressing the Bosnian parliament in Sarajevo, said the world must unite to end the "slaughter" in Syria, recalling the inertia of the United Nations in 1995 during the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia.
At the U.N. Security Council, members blamed each other for rising violence in Syria. Western states pledged to seek an end to the conflict outside the world body, while Russia warned of "likely catastrophic consequences" with that approach.
Russia, an ally of Syria, and China have repeatedly blocked Western-backed Security Council resolutions on Syria. (Writing by Giles Elgood; Editing by Alistair Lyon)
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.