Activists: Syria rebels advance in Aleppo

BEN HUBBARD Associated Press Published:

BEIRUT (AP) -- Anti-regime forces made major advances in Syria's largest city on Thursday, claiming to have seized new areas long controlled by the regime in fighting on the eve of an internationally mandated cease-fire that neither side has fully endorsed.

The two sides have been stalemated for months in the fight for Aleppo, a major battleground in the civil war between President Bashar Assad's forces and rebels trying to topple him.

Activists in Aleppo reported heavy clashes citywide on Thursday, particularly around a military airport. Bassam al-Dada, a rebel spokesman, said in a phone interview that anti-regime fighters have taken several areas that have seen months of clashes, including the southwestern neighborhoods of Salaheddin and Suleiman a-Halabi.

Rebels also moved into the northern Kurdish neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh for the first time and were fighting in the areas of Arqoub, Siryan, Zahra and Firqan, al-Dada said.

He said rebels now control more than half of the city and were fighting for control of Aleppo's strategic military base of Nairab.

The Syrian government made no immediate comment on the Aleppo fighting, and rebel forces have often pushed into new areas in the past, only to swiftly withdraw when faced with Assad's air power.

It was unclear if the rebels have the forces to hold the new areas.

An Aleppo activist reached via Skype also said rebels had seized Ashrafiyeh, a Kurdish neighborhood where residents of other city neighborhoods had sought refuge from the fighting.

The activist, who goes by the name of Abu Raed because of security concerns, said the rebels are moving into the neighboring Al-Siryan Al-Jadideh, a Christian area.

"It was a surprise," Abu Raed said on Skype. "It was fast progress and in an unexpected direction."

No casualties were immediately reported in the fighting, which comes a day before a truce proposed by an international envoy to Syrian crisis was due to take hold.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, has proposed that both sides lay down their arms during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which begins for most of the world's Muslims on Friday.

But the effort to scale back fighting that activists say has killed more 35,000 people since the uprising began in March last year appears doomed.

Syrian government officials said they were still studying the idea. Rebels have dismissed the plan as irrelevant, and a radical Islamist group fighting alongside the rebels said on Wednesday it won't comply with any truce.

The deputy head of the United Nations, Jan Eliasson, warned Thursday that there are no guarantees that a proposed Syrian cease-fire will hold but urged Syrian rebels and the regime in Damascus to observe it.

"We all have our eyes on the tragedy in Syria, and we pin our hopes now on the cease-fire that hopefully can take place," he told reporters in Geneva.

Previous cease-fire missions have failed, in part because neither Assad nor rebels trying to topple him had an incentive to end their bloody war of attrition. Both sides believe they can still make gains on the battlefield even as they are locked in a stalemate, and neither has faith in negotiations on a political transition.

Al-Dada said the regime could not be trusted.

"Our people have no truce. They have been subjected to massacres," al-Dada said.

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Associated Press writers Barbara Surk and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, and John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.