Aleppo under helicopter bombardment, residents say

BEIRUT Tue Jul 24, 2012 1:29pm EDT

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian army helicopters fired rockets and machineguns near central Aleppo on Tuesday as they battled rebels trying to enlarge their foothold in Syria's second city, forcing residents to flee.

Residents said fighter jets were flying over some rebel-held neighborhoods, and that helicopters were firing at eastern and southern parts of the city located around only 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) east of Aleppo's ancient citadel in the city centre.

"I heard at least 20 rockets fired, I think from helicopters, and also a lot of machinegun fire," said a resident near one of the areas being shelled, who asked only to be identified by his first name Omar.

"Almost everyone has fled in panic, even my family. I have stayed to try to stop the looters, we hear they often come after an area is shelled," he added.

Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub and its largest city, lies close to the country's northern border with Turkey.

Until recently, it had been relatively calm compared to much of the country which has been rocked by violent battles between government troops and rebels taking part in a 16-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

Video uploaded by activists showed rebels in camouflage vests running through the streets of the historic central district of Bab al-Hadid with their assault rifles as the clatter of machinegun fire echoed in the background.

Rebels in Aleppo said Bab al-Hadid sits on a strategic hilltop area close to a security force compound and that it had become the main battle site. They said that opposition forces held nearly half the city.

"The battle is still in our favor. That is why the regime is using its air force. There is little we can do against it," said a fighter who called himself Abu Sufyan, speaking by telephone.

He said 60 people had been wounded so far, but did not give a death toll.

Two residents said a war plane fired a rocket on an area called Bab al-Tareeq, but other residents thought the jet had simply broken the sound barrier.

"I heard this whooshing sound, and then bam. Then everything, the whole neighborhood was shaking," Omar, the resident, said.

An activist called Tamam said helicopters were targeting sites where they thought there were large numbers of rebels. Speaking by telephone, he said more and more residents were fleeing the eastern and southern parts of the city.

"I myself am leaving as well, the situation is too horrible," he said.

(Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Antakya, Turkey; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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