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Syrian rebels, regime forces clash in Aleppo

(CNN) — Syrian rebels took their fight to the northern city of Aleppo on Wednesday, burning a police station and capturing pro-regime forces in an effort to wrest control from government forces, opposition and rebel groups said.
Rebels took control of a police station, according to footage streamed live by the Free Syrian Army on Wednesday. The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels burned a police station, though it wasn’t clear if it was the same one.
The video shows rebels seizing tanks, looting the station, smashing pictures of President Bashar al-Assad and lining up captured members of the pro-regime Shabiha militia.
Another opposition group, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, said MiG-21 warplanes were flying over the city and shelling several Aleppo neighborhoods. There was also gunfire, and civilians’ cars were targeted, it said.
The British and German ambassadors to the United Nations said reports of the warplanes over Aleppo are especially concerning.
“The reports now of attacks by regime fighter jets in Aleppo mark yet a further dangerous escalation and underlines that there are no boundaries that the Assad regime will not cross in the misguided hope that it can resist the will of its people and hang on to power,” British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant told the Security Council on Wednesday.
Aleppo is the commercial hub of Syria and an al-Assad stronghold, making it a key target for both sides.
Read more: Is there a plan for a post-Assad Syria?
“The Assad authorities are not only unleashing their heavy weapons and gunships against their own people,” German Ambassador Peter Wittig said. “Two days ago they went even a step further and threatened the international community with the use of chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction.”
Wittig was referencing comments by Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi that any weapons of mass destruction owned by the regime would never be used against the Syrian people, and are meant to be used only in the event of “external aggression.”
Wittig called Makdissi’s remark “a ruthless and an inhumane threat.”
Syria is thought to have a biological warfare research and development program but is not known to have offensive biological warfare agents, according to Michael Eisenstadt, a senior fellow and director of the military and security studies program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
At least 129 people, including 10 children, were killed in fresh violence across the country Wednesday, the LCC said. The dead included 22 in Aleppo and 27 in and around Damascus.
Rights group Amnesty International said Wednesday the discovery of 19 bodies in a Damascus neighborhood this week mirrored a pattern documented elsewhere in Syria of both regime and opposition forces carrying out unlawful killings.
“Reports that government forces and armed opposition groups deliberately and unlawfully captured and killed opponents in Syria bolster the need for all sides to commit to abiding by international humanitarian law,” the group said.
CNN’s Ivan Watson, who is in northern Syria, said rebels have become better armed in the past few months. While they had only shotguns at one point, they now have rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles, he said.
The increased firepower has helped the rebels successfully attack the regime’s armored vehicles and forced some Syrian units to resupply by helicopter.
Watson said that in the village he was in, hundreds of rebels loaded up with ammunition this week and headed to fight in Aleppo.
Read more: Faces of the Free Syrian Army
Tuesday, state-run media reported that regime troops regained control of neighborhoods in Damascus, another al-Assad stronghold where rebels fought government forces last week.
Alex Thomson, a journalist for CNN British affiliate ITN, confirmed the developments from Damascus.
“It is quite clear that the regime has just had, in Damascus, the biggest boost to its morale in 16 months of violent civil war,” Thomson wrote. “This is a comprehensive victory of the Assad regime in its own backyard and capital.”
Thomson also recounted how, in a moment of confusion at an army checkpoint, shots were fired by regime forces at a vehicle in which he was traveling, shattering its rear windscreen.
“These are tense times in the capital and one false move or hesitation can lead in a blink to stressed out young men firing their Kalashnikovs at you,” he wrote.
On a visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina on Wednesday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon compared the civil war in Syria to the situation during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
“The echoes are deafening. An accelerating slide to civil war. Growing sectarian strife. Villagers and children, butchered,” he said in an address to lawmakers.
“The United Nations is doing all that we can,” Ban said. “But action — meaningful action — will take the concerted efforts of the international community. Without unity, there will be more bloodshed. More deadlock means more dead.”
Video: Fighting breaks out at Syria-Turkey border
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the international community must make clear to al-Assad that it’s a matter of when, not if, he must go. But in demanding al-Assad’s ouster, Blair said, world powers must be careful about what comes next.
“Because the aftermath is very uncertain, what is it that we really learn, whether from Afghanistan or Iraq or anywhere else, when you lift the lid off these highly repressive regimes, out comes all this pouring of tension, religious and tribal and ethnic difficulty,” Blair said on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight.”
“So if we can manage a process of change that allows us then to manage the aftermath sensibly, I think obviously that would be in everyone’s interest,” Blair said. “That’s easy to say, hard to do, but I think that should be the rubric of our approach. Make it clear it is inevitable — he is going to go — but really focus on managing that aftermath.”
Meanwhile, half of the U.N. observers have left Syria as their mission begins what is set to be its final 30-day mandate, the U.N.’s chief peacekeeper, Herve Ladsous, said Wednesday in Damascus.
As a result, “the mission operates on a reduced basis, reduced in numbers, reduced in team sites in the provinces and does what it can,” Ladsous said.
About 150 observers remain in Syria.
Lt. Gen. Babacar Gaye, who now leads the mission, said every opportunity would be taken to “alleviate the suffering” of the Syrian people.
Read more: Syria says it has weapons of mass destruction in case of foreign attack
Turkey’s customs and trade minister earlier announced temporary restrictions on traffic at three border crossings with Syria — Cilvegozu, Oncupinar and Karkamis — because of security concerns.
Hayati Yazici said opposition forces had taken control of the border crossings, which led to damage and looting. The new restrictions bar commercial traffic from entering or leaving Syria, he said, though Syrian citizens will still be allowed to cross into Turkey.
Thousands of Syrians have fled to Turkey in recent months to escape the violence, though they generally cross through the border fence, and not the border gates.
In what may be a blow to the regime, the opposition Syrian National Council said Wednesday that two senior Syrian diplomats were the latest to defect.
One is the Syrian ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Abdullatif Al Dabbagh, SNC spokesman George Sabra said.
The second is Al Dabbagh’s wife, who is also the Syrian envoy to Cyprus, Lamia Al Harriri. She defected to Qatar, SNC member Najy Tayyarah told CNN. She is also the niece of Syrian Vice President Farouq Al Sharea.
Video: Abdullah on chemical weapons in Syria
The Syrian crisis started in March 2011, when a fierce government crackdown on protesters morphed into a nationwide uprising against the regime.
The LCC says more than 16,000 people have been killed in the conflict. The U.N. secretary-general said this week that almost 17,000 people have died.

Published Date: Wednesday, July 25th, 2012 | 03:01 PM

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