ALEPPO : President Bashar al-Assad’s forces used artillery, planes and a helicopter gunship to pound rebel positions in Syria’s biggest city, witnesses said, in a battle that could determine the outcome of the 17-month uprising.
After U.N. Security Council paralysis on Syria forced peace envoy Kofi Annan to resign last week, and with his ceasefire plan a distant memory, rebels were battered on Saturday by the onslaught they had expected in Aleppo and the capital Damascus.
“There is one helicopter and we’re hearing two explosions every minute,” said a Reuters witness in Aleppo, Syria’s commercial hub.
Syrian forces struck at Aleppo’s Salaheddine district, a gateway into the city of 2.5 million people that has become the frontline of an increasingly sectarian conflict that has killed some 18,000 people and could spill into neighboring countries.
A local rebel commander said his fighters were preparing for a “strong offensive” by government forces on the city.
In Damascus, jets bombarded the capital as troops kept up an offensive they began on Friday to storm the last rebel bastion there, a resident said.
Both cities – vital prizes in the battle for Syria – had been relatively free from violence during the 17-month uprising but fighting flared in Damascus after a July 18 bombing which killed four of Assad’s inner circle and also erupted in Aleppo.
On Saturday, a rebel commander in Aleppo said he expected a Syrian army attack on rebels “within days”, echoing the head of the U.N. peacekeeping department, who said there had been a “considerable build-up of military means”.
“We know they are planning to attack the city using tanks and aircraft, shooting at us for three to four days and they plan to take the city,” Colonel Abdel-Jabbar al-Oqaidi said.