Syrian rebels edge towards Aleppo's ancient heart

ALEPPO, Syria Wed Aug 1, 2012 3:08pm EDT

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ALEPPO, Syria Aug 1 (Reuters) - At the frontline of the battle for Aleppo, the ancient citadel is tantalisingly close for Syrian rebels.

As they push towards the centre of Syria's biggest city, they can see the crumbling stone walls of the 800-year-old fortress perched on a dry, grassy hill just 200 metres away.

"One day soon, we're going to march inside it. We will make it to the heart of the city," says Ahmed, a pale and scrawny young rebel. He shades his eyes from the glaring sun as he stares at the citadel - once a symbol of Arab military might and more recently a tourist attraction - from his perch on the rusted balcony of an abandoned apartment.

"In the evening, once it is cool, the fighting starts. They fly over with helicopters and snipe at us from the citadel. We crouch in our positions and fire back," says Ahmed.

Rebels fighting in the 17-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad say the territory they have seized proves they are advancing on the heart of Syria's largest city.

They are heavily outgunned by Assad's forces, but believe they have what the government troops lack - the will to win.

From their deepest point inside the city in the Bab al-Hadeed area, rebels with rifles and chequered scarves patrol traffic. Cars rattle down the main roads into the square, past two sandbagged rebel positions. The rebels lurk in alleyways with rocket propelled grenades and rifles, waiting.

"The regime soldiers are somewhere down that road, just a few hundred metres away," one fighter says. He looks calm, but never loosens his grip on the RPG launcher hoisted over his shoulder.

Rebels have blocked roads leading into the traffic roundabout at Bab al-Hadeed with wooden crates and metal desks dragged into the road. From there, it is a short walk down stone pavements lined with curled iron lamp posts into Aleppo's historic old city, where stone and marble Arabic homes have been transformed into boutique hotels for the tourists who no longer come.

The stone gateway standing over the square, which has survived hundreds of years of changing rulers, is freshly pocked with the bullets.

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In the midday heat the only sound is of cars and men greeting each other in the street. Most women and children have fled, residents say.

"What's odd actually is how little fighting there is. I'm surprised the regime hasn't come down on this place. Look how close they are to the main symbol of the city," says an elderly man, peering outside of his bakery - one of the few shops not shuttered and closed for business on this urban battlefront.

Down the main road toward the citadel, rebels say they have slowly advanced a few metres in the past two days. They mark the end of their territory with a battered red bus across the road, the opposition's green, white and black flag flutters above it.

"We are the Free Syrian Army," is scrawled across the bus in black graffiti.

Twenty-three-year old Mohammed, whose muscles bulge out of his black t-shirt, leads a group of young rebels guarding their position in the northern end of the city.

Government snipers are not far away, he says, but the large grin on his face never flickers.

"We are standing on the first point of defence for the rebels and for liberated Aleppo. From this point here, the main square of the city, Saadallah al-Jabri, is somewhere around 700 metres away from there," he said.

Many government offices are centred in Saadallah al-Jabri square, making it the ultimate strategic target, he argues - even more than the beautiful citadel which has been declared a world heritage site by UNESCO.

"With God's help, we will advance towards it further in the coming days and liberate it from the enemy," said Mohammed.

Fighters insist that army attacks, even with artillery and tanks, cannot dislodge the rebels' hold.

"The only way they can be effective is with troops on the ground, and their men don't have the will for that much loss of life" said the fighter Mohammed, picking up the metal shards of rockets he said the army fired at his men's checkpoint.

"So they shell. But just go deeper into the city: Off every road here, the old city is a network of tiny, twisted alleys."

Some residents say they feel trapped in a dangerously quiet centre waiting to explode. An older man with a grey beard whispered: "We have the regime pounding and the rebels in the streets, and we civilians are stuck in the middle."

But the fighters who have battled Assad's forces for more than a year are only looking forward. "Soon you will see us in the citadel," says the rebel Mohammed. "And from there, you will see a liberated Aleppo."

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