Syrian troops mass for Aleppo raid after retaking rebel town
Syrian forces claimed to be massing for a major assault on Aleppo after sweeping through the last rebel holdouts around Qusayr in the west of the country.
News outlets close to the Syrian regime and the Lebanese Shia militia Hizbollah, which has come to its support, said that "Operation Northern Storm" to retake Aleppo, the biggest city, and the surrounding countryside, had begun. Other sources said the battle would start in "the coming days or hours".
There was no evidence of a major attack last night, but there was renewed fighting near a government-held base on the north-western outskirts.
Hizbollah reinforcements were said to have arrived in the area, while a video leaked to an opposition website showed a regime general recruiting men from two Shia towns to join in a fresh attack.
The regime is in high spirits after the Syrian army and Hizbollah retook Qusayr, close to the Lebanese border. They continued their advance over the weekend, sweeping through the last opposition-held villages north of the town.
They harried the retreating rebels and the thousands of civilians who had fled with them. Video posted online showed streams of people, mostly rebels and male civilians, marching dejectedly and in some cases staggering on crutches through fields and orchards, with the sound of shelling in the background. In some, wounded men lay dying under trees.
Hadi Abdullah, one of the main opposition spokesmen in Qusayr, said he was trapped in an enclave with 2,000 men, women and children. He said 110 people, including 40 women and children, had been killed when a refugee column was attacked by government forces.
"We were a group of around 7,000 people," he said. "The first group of 1,000 got through (the encirclement) successfully. Then it was followed by another group but that came under direct fire from the regular army and Hizbollah forces. The dead and injured fell where they were. We could not even retrieve the bodies of women."
State media at first claimed government forces had killed Abdulqader al-Saleh, also known as Hajji Marea, head of the biggest rebel brigade in Aleppo, and second-in-command of the military wing of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition. Hajji Marea had led reinforcements sent to help Qusayr's defence.
The claim was later retracted, but rebels confirmed he had been injured.
The regime's fightback has cast doubt on the chances for a peace conference, backed by Britain, France and the United States, originally due to take place this month in Geneva. (© Daily Telegraph, London)