* Helicopters strafe Aleppo
* Government declares victory in battle for Damascus
* Battle for Aleppo seen as potential turning point
By Erika Solomon
ALEPPO, Syria, July 29 The government of Bashar
al-Assad declared victory on Sunday in a hard-fought battle for
Syria's capital Damascus, and pounded rebels who control parts
of its largest city Aleppo.
Assad's forces have struggled as never before to maintain
their grip on the country over the past two weeks after a major
rebel advance into the two largest cities and an explosion that
killed four top security officials.
Government forces have succeeded in reimposing their grip on
the capital after a punishing battle, but rebels are still in
control of sections of Aleppo, clashing with reinforced army
troops for several days.
"Today I tell you, Syria is stronger... In less than a week
they were defeated (in Damascus) and the battle failed," Foreign
Minister Walid Moualem said on a visit to Iran, Assad's main
ally in a region where other neighbours have forsaken him.
"So they moved on to Aleppo and I assure you, their plots
Rebel fighters were clearly in control of parts of Aleppo,
where Reuters journalists saw neighbourhoods dotted with Free
Syrian Army checkpoints flying black and white Islamist banners.
Helicopter gunships hovered over the city shortly after dawn
and the thud of artillery boomed across neighbourhoods.
Rebel fighters, patrolling opposition districts in flat-bed
trucks flying green-white-and-black "independence" flags, said
they were holding off Assad's forces in the south-western Aleppo
district of Salaheddine, where clashes have gone on for days.
Opposition activists also reported fighting in other
rebel-held districts of Aleppo, in what could herald the start
of a decisive phase in the battle for Syria's commercial hub,
after the army sent tank columns and troop reinforcements last
Cars entering one Aleppo district came under fire from
snipers and a Reuters photographer saw three bodies lying in the
street. Unable to move them to hospital for fear of shelling,
residents had placed frozen water bottles on two of the corpses
to slow their decomposition in the baking heat.
Other rebel-held areas visited by Reuters were empty of
residents. Fighters were basing themselves in houses - some
clearly abandoned in a hurry, with food still in the fridges.
A burnt out tank lay in the street, while nearby another one
had been captured intact and covered in tarpaulin.
In a largely empty street, flanked by closed shops and
run-down buildings, women clad in long black abaya cloaks walked
with children next to walls daubed with rebel graffiti -
"Freedom", "Free Syrian Army" and "Down with Bashar".
Rubbish lay uncollected. In one street families were packing
vans full of mattresses in apparent preparation to flee.
Near the centre of town, most shops were shuttered, some
with the word "Strike" painted over them. The only shop doing
business was a bakery selling subsidised bread, where the queue
stretched around the block. Burnt cars could be seen in many
streets, some with the word "shabbiha" marked on them - a
reference to pro-Assad militiamen.
U.N. Undersecretary-General for humanitarian affairs Valerie
Amos said 200,000 people had fled the fighting in and around
Aleppo in the last two days, and the violence across Syria made
it hard for humanitarian agencies reach them.
"Many people have sought temporary shelter in schools and
other public buildings in safer areas. They urgently need food,
mattresses and blankets, hygiene supplies and drinking water."
Late on Sunday Syrian state television said soldiers were
repelling "terrorists" in Salaheddine and had captured several
of their leaders.
"Complete control of Salaheddine has been (won back) from
those mercenary gunmen," an unidentified military officer told
the television news, saying the gunmen included fighters from
Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Turkey and Yemen. "In a few days
safety and security will return to the city of Aleppo".
Reuters journalists in the city were not able to reach the
district to verify whether rebels had been pushed out. The
pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human rights said fighting
continued in Salaheddine late on Sunday.
The leader of Syria's main political opposition group, the
Syrian National Council, called for foreign allies to provide
heavy weapons to fight Assad's "killing machine".
"The rebels are fighting with primitive weapons...We want
weapons that we can stop tanks and planes with," SNC chief
Abdelbasset Seida said in Abu Dhabi. He urged foreign allies to
circumvent the divided U.N. Security Council and intervene.
"Our friends and allies will bear responsibility for what is
happening in Aleppo if they do not move soon," he said, adding
that talks would start on forming a transitional government.
Arab League head Nabil Elaraby said the battle in Aleppo
amounted to "war crimes", and perpetrators would eventually be
punished, Egypt's MENA state news agency reported.
The Arab League has suspended Syria and lined up with the
West and Turkey against Assad. Assad's government blames Arab
states, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for the revolt.
Reuters reported on Friday that Saudi Arabia and Qatar had
set up a base in southeastern Turkey to aid the rebels.
A Saudi Foreign Ministry spokesman declined on Sunday to
comment directly but said Riyadh gave financial and humanitarian
aid to the Syrian people. He also hinted at more direct support,
saying countries should enable Syrians "to protect themselves at
the very least, if the international community is not able to do
Assad's ruling structure draws strongly on his Alawite
minority sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, while his
opposition is drawn largely from the Sunni Muslim majority,
backed by Sunni leaders who rule nearly all other Arab states.
That has raised fears that the 16-month-old conflict could
spread across the wider Middle East, where a sectarian divide
between Sunnis and Shi'ites has been at the root of violence in
Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and elsewhere.
Shi'ite Iran demonstrated its firm support for Assad by
hosting his foreign minister. At a joint news conference with
Moualem, Iran's own Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi rebuked
the West and Arab states for holding the "illusion" that Assad
could be easily replaced in a managed transition.
In Damascus, where Assad's forces have pushed back a rebel
offensive since a deadly July 18 bomb attack on his inner
circle, many residents have fled fighting in the outskirts for
relative safety in the heart of the capital.
In the centre, shops open only between 9 am and 3 pm, food
prices have soared and no one dares walk outside after dusk,
even in the holy month of Ramadan when streets are normally
packed late into the night with people breaking the fast.
"To begin with I was with the regime, for sure," said
Ahmed, from one of the southern suburbs where the army, backed
by helicopters and tanks, launched its counter-offensive.
"But now, no, the regime must go. Take what they want with
them, but they must go."
The battle for Aleppo, a city of 2.5 million people, is a
decisive test of the government's ability to retake its two main
cities. It has committed huge military resources to the battle
there after losing control of outlying rural areas and some
border crossings with Turkey and Iraq.
The British-based Observatory said 26 people were killed in
Aleppo on Saturday and 190 across Syria. It reported fighting in
Deraa, Homs and Hama. There was no way to verify its figures.
The Aleppo fighting follows the July 18 bomb attack, which
killed four top security officials including Assad's defence
minister, intelligence chief and powerful brother-in-law.
Interior Minister Mohammad al-Shaar, who was wounded in the
attack, told state media the assassination had only hardened the
authorities' determination to crush the revolt.
"Before this cowardly explosion, we were all working flat
out. But now we will exert 10 times the effort to pursue those
who threaten the security of our country," Shaar said.