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Syrian Helicopters Fire on Aleppo as Army Prepares for Possible Assault

Friday, 27 July 2012 10:41 By Rick Gladstone, Neil MacFarquhar and Kareem Fahim, The New York Times News Service | Report
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Beirut, Lebanon - Syrian Army helicopters fired on neighborhoods in Aleppo on Friday morning, activists said, as the army readied assault troops and armored columns for a possible invasion of the city, Syria’s densely populated commercial capital, where insurgents have embedded themselves over the past week in preparation for a battle.

As Aleppo girded for fighting, opposition figures said on Friday that a member of the Syrian Parliament from the city’s northern district had defected and crossed into Turkey. The lawmaker, Iklhas Badawi, was elected in May to a Parliament that was seen as a rubber stamp for the predominance of President Bashar al-Assad’s Baath Party. The elections were dismissed by opposition figures as a sham.

A local official in Turkey who confirmed that Ms. Badawi had crossed the border said she would not be placed in one of the refugee camps on the border because of her “special status.”

The government’s opponents, anxious for news of cracks in Mr. Assad’s government, have cheered the defections of even minor functionaries. “We will work on helping her and making her feel at ease,” said George Sabra, a member of the largest Syrian opposition group. “The regime is isolating patriots.”

The Syrian military shelled rebel targets in urban enclaves on Thursday. Antigovernment activists reached by phone and Skype in Aleppo said that the city’s civilian population was gripped by foreboding as government forces massed on the southern outskirts, and that fierce street clashes had sporadically erupted. But Syrian military commanders appeared to be awaiting reinforcements before issuing invasion orders.

Military experts have long speculated that President Assad’s army, which has been scrambling to crush rebel resistance in urban areas like Homs, Hama and more recently central and southern neighborhoods of Damascus during the uprising, lacked the military resources to take on an armed rebellion in all major cities at once. That seemed to explain the delay in Aleppo, where anticipation of an attack has been building for days.

The United States expressed alarm about the possibility of mass civilian casualties in Aleppo, a Unesco World Heritage site and one of the Middle East’s most storied cities. Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, told reporters in Washington that there was “concern that we will see a massacre in Aleppo, and that’s what the regime appears to be lining up for.”

But Ms. Nuland also indicated that the United States was not reconsidering its stance against military intervention, saying, “We do not think pouring more fuel onto the fire is going to save lives.” And she drew a sharp distinction between Aleppo and the Libyan city of Benghazi, where fears of a slaughter by government troops led to a NATO bombing campaign that proved decisive in toppling Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi last year.

“The kind of groundswell call for external support that we’ve seen elsewhere is not there,” Ms. Nuland said.

A resident in the city named Ahmed, reached by Skype on Thursday afternoon, said Aleppo was convulsed with rumors that the army’s elite Fourth Division, commanded by Mr. Assad’s brother Maher, was mobilizing for an attack. “We are terrified,” he said.

Antigovernment fighters — including foreign fighters — were arriving or were preparing to travel to Aleppo from surrounding areas, activists said. Although the insurgents claimed to have destroyed police stations in two of the city’s neighborhoods, they were repulsed when they tried to take over two others, said Majed Abdel Nour, a spokesman in the city for the Shaam News Network, an antigovernment activist group.

The possibility of a major battle for Aleppo came as Turkey’s prime minister injected a new element of tension into the Syrian conflict, asserting that Syrian forces had abandoned territories close to the Turkish border that had since been occupied by Kurdish militants hostile to Turkey.

In recent weeks, activists from Kurdish hamlets near the Turkish border have posted videos of celebrations there, including in Kobani, where residents were seen raising the Kurdish flag.

The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told reporters in Turkey that his country’s armed forces would “take whatever steps are necessary against terrorism” in these areas, foreshadowing possible Turkish military incursions into Syria, similar to Turkey’s incursions into areas of northern Iraq where Kurdish militants have sought sanctuary.

Mr. Erdogan’s warning came a day after Turkey placed new restrictions on Syrian-Turkish commercial trade along the 550-mile border, barring Turkish vehicles from entering Syria after clashes inside Syria in which many were damaged. The Turkish restrictions do not prohibit Syrian merchants from entering Turkey or place any limits on refugees.

Most of the clashes that have paralyzed Aleppo in recent days have taken place in the poorer, eastern parts, where a host of informal neighborhoods have sprung up in recent years. Populated mainly by Sunni Muslims arriving from rural areas, residents are sympathetic to the fighters, offering them meals to break the Ramadan fast and other support. There have also been clashes near the city’s historic center.

But with shelling during the night, residents took advantage of daylight to try to flee. Government helicopters continued to patrol Aleppo, firing occasionally, activists said.

The official Syrian news agency reported Thursday that clashes between the army and armed groups had “resulted in the killing and wounding of many terrorists.”

Mohamed, a resident from the eastern part of Aleppo, said the army was randomly shelling the city and beefing up its presence at checkpoints. Dozens of civilians had been killed in the past two days, he said.

“This used to be a restless city,” he said. “Now it’s the opposite.” He added that there were no police officers on the streets, no fuel available and no bread.

Abu Qusay, a field activist and fighter from nearby Idlib Province, said that he and dozens of other fighters, including Libyans, were preparing to travel on farm roads toward Aleppo. The fighters were bringing some light weapons, and counting on finding more in stockpiles seized by the rebels inside the city, he said.

In Damascus, activists reported scores of deaths, including among civilians, during heavy fighting in southern suburbs, the scene of clashes over the last two weeks.

There were also reports of deadly clashes between rebel fighters and the army in Tall Shihab, a town that hugs Syria’s border with Jordan and that sits along a route used by refugees trying to escape Syria.

At a news conference in Damascus on Thursday, Hervé Ladsous, the United Nations undersecretary general in charge of peacekeeping operations globally, elaborated on a decision announced Wednesday to send back roughly half of the 300 monitors whose work has been suspended in Syria since mid-June because of the violence.

“We found ourselves with too many people with not enough to do,” Mr. Ladsous said.

Nonetheless, Mr. Ladsous offered assurances that the monitoring mission was still functioning, even though its mandate, which expired last Friday, was only renewed for a further 30 days by the United Nations Security Council. “The U.N. is in no way packing and going,” he said.

Kareem Fahim and Neil MacFarquhar reported from Beirut, Lebanon, and Rick Gladstone from New York. Reporting was contributed by Dalal Mawad and Hwaida Saad from Beirut; Jeffrey Gettleman from Antakya, Turkey; and Sebnem Arsu from Istanbul.

This article, "Syrian Helicopters Fire on Aleppo as Army Prepares for Possible Assault," originally appears at the New York Times News Service.

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