* Syrian army extends fight for Aleppo
* Rebels say they have forced army to retreat
* Fighters aim to take centre of Syria's biggest city
* Neither rebels nor army control Salaheddine "ghost town"
By Erika Solomon
ALEPPO, Syria, Aug 1 Syrian combat aircraft and
artillery pounded Aleppo late into the night as the army battled
for control of the country's biggest city, where rebel fighters
said troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad had been forced
During the day on Tuesday large clouds of black smoke rose
into the sky after attack helicopters turned their machineguns
on eastern districts for the first time in the latest fighting
and a MiG warplane later strafed the same area.
After nightfall, Reuters journalists in Aleppo heard loud
explosions somewhere near the city. At least 10 volleys of
shells lit up the night sky and drowned out the sound of the
Islamic call to prayer. Carloads of rebel fighters shouting "God
is great" sped off towards the fighting.
The battle for Aleppo, Syria's largest city, has become a
crucial test for both sides in the 16-month-old rebellion.
Neither Assad's forces nor the rag-tag rebels can afford to lose
if they hope to prevail in the wider struggle for Syria.
Syria's civil war has entered a far more violent phase since
July 18 when a bomb killed four top members of President Bashar
al-Assad's inner circle. Serious fighting reached Aleppo over
the past week and rebels also launched an assault on the capital
Damascus in July but were repulsed.
Heavy gunfire echoed around the Salaheddine district in the
southwest of the city, scene of some of the worst clashes, with
shells raining in for most of the day.
Reuters journalists have established that neither the Syrian
army nor rebel fighters are in full control of the quarter,
which the government said it had taken on Sunday.
Salaheddine resembled what one journalist called a "ghost
town", its shops shuttered, with no sign of life.
Rebel fighters, some in balaclavas and others with scarves
around their faces, fired machineguns and assault rifles around
street corners at invisible enemies. Wounded civilians and
fighters were carried to makeshift dressing stations.
Syrian state television said on Tuesday troops were still
pursuing remaining "terrorists" there - its usual way of
describing rebel fighters.
A rebel commander in Aleppo said his fighters' aim was to
push towards the city centre, district by district, a goal he
believed they could achieve "within days, not weeks".
The rebels say they now control an arc that covers eastern
and southwestern districts.
"The regime has tried for three days to regain Saleheddine,
but its attempts have failed and it has suffered heavy losses in
human life, weapons and tanks, and it has been forced to
withdraw," said Colonel Abdel-Jabbar al-Oqaidi, head of the
Joint Military Council, one of several rebel groups in Aleppo.
Oqaidi told Reuters that more than 3,000 rebel fighters were
in Aleppo but would not give a precise number.
The fighting has proved costly for the 2.5 million residents
of Aleppo, a commercial hub that was slow to join the anti-Assad
revolt that has rocked the capital, Damascus, and other cities.
Rebels say they will turn Aleppo into the "grave" of the
Assad government. Thousands of residents have fled and those who
remain face shortages of food and fuel and the ever-present risk
of injury or death.
"We have hardly any power or water, our wives and kids have
left us here to watch the house and have gone somewhere safer,"
said Jumaa, a 45-year-old construction worker, who complained it
was nearly impossible to observe the fasting month of Ramadan.
Makeshift clinics in rebel-held areas struggle to deal with
dozens of casualties after more than a week of fighting.
Up to 18,000 people have been forced to leave their homes in
Aleppo and many frightened residents were seeking shelter in
schools, mosques and public buildings, according to figures
given by the U.N. refugee agency in Geneva.
Rebel fighters, patrolling parts of Aleppo in pick-up trucks
flying green-white-and-black "independence" flags, face a
daunting task in taking on the well-equipped Syrian army, even
if the loyalty of some of its troops is in doubt.
Armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, machineguns and
rocket-propelled grenades they are up against a military that
can deploy fighter jets, helicopter gunships, tanks, armoured
fighting vehicles, artillery and mortars.
The most powerful military in the region, NATO member
Turkey, has been moving armoured columns towards the border,
although it has given no indication they will cross over.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, once a friend of
Assad, has become among his most vocal opponents. Erdogan spoke
by phone to U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday.
"God willing, the brotherly Syrian people and the Middle
East will soon be freed from this dictator with blood on his
hands, and his regime, which was built on blood," Erdogan said
late on Tuesday in a monthly television address.
"Assad and his bloodstained comrades know well that they
have reached the end, and that their fates will not be different
from those of previous dictators."
Assad, a member of the Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of
Shi'ite Islam, is now opposed by the leaders of other Arab
states, nearly all of which are led by Sunni Muslims, as well as
by Turkey and the West.
Within the region he retains the support of Shi'ite-led
Iran, and in the U.N. Security Council he has been protected by
China and Russia.