Syria’s two largest cities rocked by clashes

MASNAA, Lebanon — Fierce clashes rocked Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s two largest cities, on Sunday as the military used helicopters and tanks to fight rebel forces in residential areas, according to opposition groups. 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group based in Britain, reported that at least 2,752 people have been killed in fighting across the country in the past three weeks, which indicates that July could become the bloodiest month since the conflict started last year. The group also reported that the total number of casualties in Syria is over 19,000, perhaps the highest number of deaths in any of the Arab Spring uprisings so far. 

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A look at the Syrian uprising one year later. Thousands of Syrians have died and President Bashar al-Assad remains in power, despite numerous calls by the international community for him to step down.
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A look at the Syrian uprising one year later. Thousands of Syrians have died and President Bashar al-Assad remains in power, despite numerous calls by the international community for him to step down.

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Most of the fighting in Aleppo on Sunday took place about five miles from the city center, according to Obeida, an opposition activist in the city who is known by his nickname out of concerns for his safety, but they appeared to be spreading. “The streets of Aleppo are coming under heavy shelling and have been the scene of heavy clashes since this morning,” he said. 

Heavy clashes also rocked Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial capital, for a second day on Saturday as thousands streamed across the border into neighboring Lebanon to escape widespread fighting in the country.

Like Damascus, the country’s capital, Aleppo had long been seen as a bastion of government support. That the revolt is now spreading there represents another blow to the regime in a week that has seen its veneer of control in the country’s two biggest cities shattered by the assassinations of four of its top security officials in a bombing.

Syrians who crossed the border into Lebanon on Saturday gave harrowing accounts of intense street fighting and attacks by government helicopters and tanks in residential areas of Damascus as basic supplies such as bread and water dwindled. As many as 30,000 Syrians may have crossed into Lebanon in recent days, a spokeswoman for the United Nations said Friday.

Among the crowds at the border Saturday was 19-year-old Domou, an Iraqi woman married to a Syrian man, whose life was upended in the span of one week as Damascus descended into chaos.

Last Sunday, Domou and her husband were elated when she gave birth to a boy at a hospital in Damascus. Three days later, the baby died in an incubator when electricity was cut across the capital after the attack on the top officials.

When chaos began to spread across the city, the couple realized they had to get their young daughter out.

“After my baby died, I got very scared for my daughter. I knew we had to leave,” said Domou, a soft-spoken woman wearing a black abaya and brown scarf. Like others, she spoke on the condition that her full name not be used, fearing for her safety.

Domou said that she and her family walked several miles to escape the shelling and helicopter attacks in her neighborhood, Sayida Zeinab, before they found a driver. As they drove through the capital, Domou said she witnessed nightmarish scenes. In one neighborhood, she saw a group of boys and teenagers kicking a corpse while chanting “shabiha,” the name of a militia group fighting alongside government forces. In another neighborhood, she saw an ambulance filled with bodies careening through garbage-filled streets.

“I believe the situation is going to get worse,” she said. “I don’t know when we can go back.”

Fear and anger at the border

Some of the cars that crossed the Lebanese border Saturday were piled high with large suitcases, mattresses, bicycles and even air-conditioning units, a sign that the passengers did not anticipate returning to Syria anytime soon.

Tempers flared in the blazing afternoon heat, and the sound of car horns and insults mixed with the sales pitch of money-changers holding fat stacks of Lebanese pounds.

Many people at the border Saturday were critical of the Syrian government, but most appeared deeply uneasy talking about it even on Lebanese territory, with some looking over their shoulder and whispering “shabiha” if strangers got too close.

Some denied there was any fighting at all in Syria. “We are coming to Lebanon to go to the beach,” one young woman sitting in the back of a black sport-utility vehicle said with a smile. “The situation in Damascus is okay. The Syrian army has everything under control.”

And there was criticism of the rebels, even from Syrians who are Sunni, the sect that makes up the bulk of the opposition.

“We fear the Free Syrian Army more than the government,” said one woman who was traveling with her daughter. “They are the gangs and the ones creating the problems.”

Fighting and looting

Government forces shelled residential areas of Aleppo on Saturday as soldiers and rebel fighters clashed in the neighborhood of Tariq al Bab, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an activist network.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s official Iraqiya TV station reported that Free Syrian Army rebels had captured a second major border post on the Syrian-Iraqi border Saturday afternoon, at Yarubiyah, which links northern Iraq’s Nineveh province to Syria’s predominantly Kurdish Hasaka province. On Thursday, rebels took over the Abu Kamal crossing farther south.

Col. Abdul Raheem al-Attwani, a spokesman for the Nineveh security forces, said the rebels seized the crossing and raised the revolutionary flag after a 90-minute battle with the Syrian army. Iraq immediately closed its side of the border, he said.

Iraq also announced that it would not allow Syrian refugees into the country, saying it did not have the resources to cope with an influx of civilians into the desert border region. The announcement came as Iraq sought to repatriate thousands of Iraqis who had sought refuge in Syria from the violence in Iraq a few years back.

Rebels also now appear to be in full control of the Bab al-Hawa crossing point on the Turkish-Syrian border, but government forces retain a checkpoint about a mile beyond it on the highway leading south, making the control largely symbolic. Turkish authorities were allowing only Syrians to leave Turkey and Turks to enter, but there are already numerous illegal crossing points along the border through which Syrian refugees and fighters move freely.

Travelers arriving on the Turkish side of the border said about 50 rebels were at the customs post on the other side.

“They were polite and friendly,” said Turkish trader Dibo Sezer as he returned from checking on a consignment of cars waiting on the Syrian side for customs clearance. The vehicles had been stripped and one had been burned amid other signs of looting and destruction at the post. “I don’t know who did it, whether it was the regime army or the Free Syrian Army,” he said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group based in Britain, reported that about 140 people had been killed in violence across the country Saturday.

Sly reported from Cilvegozu, Turkey. Suzan Haidamous in Masnaa, Uthman Mukhtar in Fallujah, Iraq, and Jabbar Yaseen in Baghdad contributed to this report.

 
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