BEIRUT — Fierce clashes were reported Wednesday in a strategic district of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, where rebels and the military are locked in a battle for control of Syria’s commercial hub.
There were conflicting accounts about which side, if either, had seized the initiative in a confrontation that could be decisive in the 17-month rebellion against the government of President Bashar Assad.
Syrian state television reported that the government has asserted “full control” over Aleppo’s southwest Salahuddin district, target of weeks of military bombardment. The gateway neighborhood is one of several areas that rebels have largely controlled for almost three weeks.
Syrian state TV reported the deaths and capture of many “terrorists,” the government's label for the armed opposition.
However, news services quoted rebel commanders saying the battle was ongoing and insurgents had not withdrawn from Salahuddin, much of which has been reduced to rubble.
Reuters news agency reported that a team of its journalists on the scene found that rebels had “abandoned” front-line positions and were told by one fighter: “We have retreated, get out of here,” as explosions and gunfire were heard.
It was unclear whether the government thrust on Wednesday represented the army’s long-awaited assault on rebel-held districts or was just a limited foray into the Salahuddin area.
Rebels have been digging in for what was expected to be a difficult and costly battle for control of Aleppo, home to more than 2 million people. Published reports have indicated that some 20,000 troops have massed around the city, though that figure was unconfirmed. The opposition says scores of military tanks were also poised to strike.
Anti-government fighters, thought to number several thousand, have taken positions in apartment buildings and alleyways. The military has pounded rebel positions with artillery, helicopter gunships, fixed-wing aircraft and tanks.
Human rights groups fear a humanitarian catastrophe may be unfolding in Aleppo, Syria's most populous city.
More than 200,000 residents have already fled, according to the United Nations, and front-line districts are said to be largely devoid of civilians. Authorities in nearby Turkey reported a steep rise in the numbers of refugees entering their country. More than 2,000 Syrians arrived at the border on Wednesday, said Turkey's official Anatolia news agency.
Inside Aleppo and its outlying districts, thousands of displaced people are said to be sleeping in schools, mosques and parks. Long lines have formed for bread, and supplies of cooking oil are scarce, witnesses say. Prices have risen sharply.
But Aleppo is a large and sprawling city and some districts have remained largely unaffected. The fear of many residents is that the fighting could spread and engulf much of the metropolitan area.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: In Aleppo last week, Syrian rebels ride in a pickup truck amid clashes with government forces in the southwest district of Salahuddin. Syrian troops launched a ground assault Wednesday on the besieged northern city. Credit: Alberto Prieto / Associated Press.