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Inside Aleppo: Rebels repulse Syrian tanks, civilians dodge shells (+video)

Monitor reporter Scott Peterson reports from the Aleppo neighborhood of Salaheddin that the rebels are impeding the Syrian Army's ground progress, pushing them to use more deadly tactics.

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But Abu Omar, a former special forces soldier who defected to the rebels, could see a government soldier hiding between some stones. He took up his position with his Austrian-made Steyr AUG assault rifle, its serial numbers ground off, like much of the new weaponry in the hands of the FSA, to hide the identity of the nation that provided it.

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The rebels shouted a warning to the government soldier. 

"I didn't want to shoot him. The FSA was saying, 'Surrender, surrender! We don't want to kill you!'" Abu Omar recalled. "But he still kept shooting, so I shot him and he went down."

Seeking reassurance in prayer

Back on the streets at the makeshift rebel base, fear grew as the sound of gunfire and explosions came closer, echoing among the multi-story apartment buildings and narrow roads, their criss-crossed electricity and phone wires and cloth-hung balconies reminiscent of the warrens of south Beirut.

With every new explosion, men and rebel fighters clustered in doorways quietly said "Allahu Akbar" ("God is the greatest"). They knew they were outgunned; that knowledge was etched in the fear evident on every face.

A louder chant went up at 8 a.m. and spread along the street: "Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar...." One older man with a long white beard began to pray aloud, mouthing lines from the Quran. Finally, his courage leaving him, he just whispered repeatedly, "Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar...."

The shooting escalated further. Then the white-bearded man turned to an FSA officer and asked, almost choking: "Where's the Army?"

Within minutes, a rebel raced out onto the street with news: Five Syrian Army tanks had been destroyed. In that split second, despair gave way to relief and triumph, and the fighters lining the street raised their arms and shouted praise of God at the top of their lungs.

These were not jihadists, although some of those are on Syria's rebel frontline. On the streets of Salaheddin, they were proof of the old adage that there are no atheists in foxholes. 

Barrage of artillery 

Video footage seen by the Monitor shortly after the showdown bolstered rebel claims: It showed a Syrian armored vehicle with an RPG hole in its side still smoldering, and a number of Syrian soldiers lying dead at their positions on a wide avenue. Later footage showed burnt tanks. 

The assault had been stopped, at least on the ground.

But shortly after came the roar of artillery barrages. Mortars, rockets, and tank shells were unleashed on the rebel enclave and did not end, nor even ease up, until well into the night.

Casualties began to pour in to the makeshift field hospital. Civilians said the intense shelling felt like regime revenge for the earlier military setbacks. 

Few Syrians here forget the example of the rebel stronghold of Bab al-Amr in Homs – which was destroyed by weeks of artillery bombardment earlier this year, then declared "free" – or the more recent brutal "cleansing" of rebel turf in Damascus.

The bombardment was so intense that the United Nations estimates that in the last two days alone, 200,000 of the city’s 2 million residents have fled. 

Artillery shells and rockets fell every few minutes in Salaheddin, sometimes as often as one a minute and sometimes in groups of five, coming in rapid succession. Some landed so close to the field hospital that shrapnel and debris hit the roof or walls.

Cars came through in a steady stream, screeching their wheels as they came around corners to announce and deliver casualties from the frontline. Wounded FSA soldiers, some with shrapnel but most with bullet wounds, were carried in on stretchers to be bandaged up, sewn up, or – in the case of one Palestinian "martyr" Musa Keilani – to be reverently left on the table for a moment and cried over. 

'We are not terrorists, we are men.'

One middle-aged fighter was so angry about his head wound that, after it was sutured, he stood up, took the IV from his arm, and jumped into a car to return to the fight, declaring that he would find either "victory or dying." 

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