BEIRUT -- After almost a week of intense battles in Damascus, the Syrian capital, fierce clashes between government security forces and armed rebels were reported Saturday in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s commercial hub.
A pro-opposition activist familiar with the situation in Aleppo described a rebel offensive that he said was inspired in part by the uprising in recent days in Damascus.
“These are the biggest clashes in Aleppo,” said the opposition activist, who goes by the name of Hashem Abu Muhammed. “The city will not calm down, the clashes will continue until they … liberate all of the neighborhoods.”
Insurgents seeking to oust President Bashar Assad appear intent on stretching the capabilities of government forces, who are already engaged in battles across vast swaths of Syria and on its far-flung borders with Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan.
The northern city of Aleppo had been mostly insulated from the violence raging elsewhere in Syria — although, as is the case in Damascus, restive suburbs have for months been centers of anti-government protest and armed rebellion.
The business elites of Damascus and Aleppo, Syria's two largest cities, have been regarded as pillars of support for the Assad government, which has portrayed itself as a guarantor of stability in an often-tumultuous region. But the unrest in the two urban centers may undermine that image and further erode support for Assad.
Fighting Saturday was said to be centered in Aleppo’s Salahudeen district, which has been an opposition hot spot and the site of many anti-Assad protests.
Rebel forces who had “liberated” nearby suburbs infiltrated the city late Friday and attacked regime positions in the neighborhood, prompting a fierce shelling counterattack from tanks stationed at a nearby soccer field, said Abu Muhammed, reached by Skype.
It was the first time that a district in Aleppo had been shelled, he said.
After dawn prayers Saturday, he said, protesters from other areas hit the streets in solidarity with the residents of the Salahudeen district. Clashes broke out in several other districts, he said.
Authorities in Aleppo were using heavy machine guns and rockets to counter rebels in several districts of the city, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based opposition group. The group reported dozens of injuries.
Anti-government rebels have gained effective control of considerable territory in northern Syria, including portions of Idlib province, not far from Aleppo. Insurgents this week seized the major border crossing along the Turkish frontier at Bab Hawa, about 50 miles west of Aleppo. Arms and supplies bound for the Syrian rebels have been flowing in via the Turkish border.
There was no immediate word from the government and no independent corroboration of the reported clashes in Aleppo.
Damascus was said to be relatively quiet Saturday after six days of clashes, although the pro-opposition Observatory for Human Rights group reported that at least even civilians had been killed, including several by sniper fire. Witnesses have described scenes of deserted streets and widespread damage in the normally bustling capital.
In recent days, thousands of Damascus-area residents have fled the insecurity of the capital and left for neighboring Lebanon. Many arrived at a border crossing on the Lebanese side less than an hour’s drive from Damascus.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell and Alexandra Sandels. A Times staff writer in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
Photo: Syrian rebels stand on a tank shouting slogans and flashing victory signs in Aleppo on Friday. Credit: EPA