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Syrian army launches Aleppo counter-offensive, activists say

The Syrian army launched a massive assault on rebels in Aleppo on Saturday amid growing world concern about the risks of reprisals against the civilian population of the country's second city.

Troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships, which had been massing for the past two days, moved on southwestern districts of the commercial hub, where rebel fighters concentrated their forces when they seized much of the northern city on July 20.

Artillery pounded Salaheddin and other rebel neighborhoods from 8 am as ground troops advanced, an AFP correspondent reported.
Trapped civilians crowded into basements, seeking refuge from the intense bombardment.

"The fiercest clashes of the uprising are taking place in several neighborhoods of the city," the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, told AFP.

At least 10 soldiers and six rebels were killed in fierce fighting after the assault began, the Observatory said.

"The regime's forces tried to storm the headquarters of Salaheddin but thank God, the heroes of the [rebel] Free Syrian Army repulsed the attack," FSA Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi told AFP.

"We have now destroyed eight armored vehicles," he said. "There are 100 tanks massed on the outskirts of the district.”

"The battle will be hard because there is no balance of forces but we are determined and we have faith in God," he added.

The opposition fighters had been holding their fire in readiness for the threatened assault, the AFP correspondent said.

But their small arms and rocket-propelled grenades were little match for the heavy armor of President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

"There are thousands of people in the streets fleeing the bombardment. They're being terrorised by helicopter gunships flying at low altitude," said an activist calling himself Amer.

"There's a large number of civilians who have taken refuge in public parks."

Pro-government media had warned that the "mother of all battles" loomed in Aleppo as the government moved to reassert its authority after recapturing rebel districts of the capital earlier in the week.

Both sides acknowledged that casualties were likely to be high as the more than 16-month uprising comes to a head.

"Rebels are stationed in narrow streets, in which fighting will be difficult," a regime security official told AFP.

Nationwide, violence killed at least 52 people on Saturday—22 civilians, 16 rebels and 14 soldiers, the Observatory said.

-AFP

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