With helicopter gunships, Syrian regime wins back parts of capital
Syria's rebels, meanwhile, launched an offensive to take Aleppo, a stronghold of the the Assad regime.
Syrian rebels have launched an offensive to "liberate" the country's largest city of Aleppo, an opposition commander said Sunday, while in Damascus government troops backed by helicopter gunships wrested back control of rebel-held neighborhoods.Skip to next paragraph
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The opposition attack on Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub and traditionally a bedrock of support for President Bashar Assad, was a sign of the rebels' growing confidence and capabilities even as regime forces appeared close to regaining control of the capital Damascus after days of bloody street battles.
With Syria's civil war moving from the countryside and smaller cities into the country's two main urban centers, an activist group said the death toll had risen to more than 19,000 since the uprising began in March 2011. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said July is shaping up to be the deadliest month of the conflict so far, with 2,752 people killed in the first three weeks.
The bloodshed has escalated as the rebels have taken the fight to the government with a week of fighting in Damascus, including a bombing that struck at Assad's inner circle, killing four senior regime officials. In a bid to seize the momentum, the opposition also has taken control of several border crossings with Iraq and Turkey.
Most recently, a video posted online by activists Sunday showed about a dozen gunmen standing in front of the Bab al-Salamah crossing on the Turkish frontier as they raised the Syrian opposition flag.
Gains, losses for both sides
Yet, in an indication of the see-saw nature of the conflict, even as the rebels seized one crossing, they abandoned another on the Iraqi border.
Iraqi military officials and state television reported that Syrian government forces retook control of the remote Rabiya crossing between the two countries after rebels pulled out.
Gen. Qassim al-Dulaimi, commander of Iraq's forces around the border region of al-Qaim, also reported the sounds of fighting at the Bukamal crossing, suggesting Assad's troops are trying to retake that one as well.
The fighting in Damascus and Aleppo has shaken the government's once seemingly iron grip on the two cities, which are both home to elites who have benefited from close ties to Assad's regime, as well as merchant classes and minority groups who worry their status will suffer if Assad falls.
Col. Abdul-Jabbar Mohammed Aqidi, the commander of rebel forces in Aleppo province, said "we gave the orders for the march into Aleppo with the aim of liberating it."
"We urge the residents of Aleppo to stay in their homes until the city is liberated," he said in a video posted by activists on YouTube. He added that rebels were fighting inside the city while others were moving in from the outskirts.
Aqidi called on government troops to defect and join the opposition, and said rebels will protect members of President Bashar Assad's Alawite minority sect, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam, saying "our war is not with you but with the Assad family."
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Aleppo-based activist Mohammed Saeed said the fighting is concentrated in several neighborhoods.
Saeed said rebels are in full control of the central Salaheddine district and the nearby Sakhour area. He added that thousands of residents have fled tense quarters of the city for safer neighborhoods and the suburbs.
"Aleppo is witnessing serious street battles" and many shops are closed, Saeed said.