BEIRUT — Syrian rebels pushed into a strategic neighborhood in the northern city of Aleppo after days of heavy clashes, seizing control of at least part of the hilltop district and killing a pro-government cleric captured in the fighting, activists and state news media said Saturday.
There were conflicting reports about the scale of the advance into the Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood by rebel forces battling to topple President Bashar al-Assad. But the gains marked the biggest shift on the front lines in the embattled city in months.
Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a former commercial hub, has been a key battleground in the country’s civil war since rebels launched an offensive there in July, seizing several districts before the fighting largely settled into a bloody stalemate.
The Aleppo Media Center opposition group and Aleppo-based activist Mohammed Saeed said rebels seized full control of Sheikh Maqsoud late Friday.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, however, said rebels took only the eastern part of the neighborhood, and it reported heavy fighting there Saturday.
Syria’s state news agency SANA said government troops “eliminated scores of terrorists” in other parts of Aleppo, mainly in the neighborhoods of Sheikh Said, Masaken Hanano and Bustan al-Bacha. SANA did not mention the fighting in Sheikh Maqsoud.
Sheikh Maqsoud, which is predominantly inhabited by minority Kurds, is on a hill on the northern edge of the city. The neighborhood used to be known as “Our Lady’s Mountain” and is considered one of the most strategic locations in the city because of its elevation.
The Observatory also said that rebels captured a pro-government Sunni Muslim cleric in the fighting, killed him and then paraded his body through the neighborhood.
State-run Al-Ikhbariya TV identified the cleric as Hassan Seifeddine. It said he was beheaded and his head placed on the minaret of al-Hassan Mosque, where he used to lead the prayers.
SANA said Seifeddine’s body was “mutilated” after the “assassination.” The reports of the mutilation of the cleric’s body could not be independently confirmed.
The killing of Seifeddine came nearly 10 days after a suicide bomber blew himself up inside a mosque in the heart of the capital, Damascus, killing senior Sunni preacher Sheik Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Bouti as he was giving a sermon.
Bouti, like Seifeddine, was a strong supporter of the Assad government.